Thinking Big With SharePoint

SharePoint is a strange beast because a good number of SMEs merrily pay for it each month, but don’t use it and/or don’t even realise they have it. SharePoint comes with business subscriptions of Microsoft 365 – and although a lot of SMEs end up using personal subscriptions of Microsoft 365 at work – more often than not it just sits there waiting to be used, overlooked.

SharePoint is a very old product in the Microsoft stable that has it’s remained essentially unchanged since its launch in 2001. Given its long life in combination with its effective ubiquity, most people don’t really know what it is for.

At its core, SharePoint is a product that lets people build internally facing websites – i.e. intranets – that organisations can use to share and “mine” information. It originally was horrendously expensive and targeted at very large corporate customers. The theory ran that in large organisations, it can be difficult to keep track of what information is known in the business, who has which skills, who sits where and does what, etc – if you put all that information on SharePoint and add a really decent search interface, you can solve that pain-point.

What SharePoint became was, at the end of it, a document management system. That usage model – that you could throw up a site on SharePoint and store documents on it – was the one that presented the least amount of fiction, and hence became the most common usage model. Over time, Microsoft stopped positioning SharePoint as a corporate platform and started positioning it to their entire customer base, from one-person businesses through to governments. Some of the technology was repurposed – for example OneDrive is SharePoint under the hood.

Where this gets awkward for the SME is that SharePoint is more than we need by way of a document management system. Most SMEs just need something that looks like a normal “tree” of files and folders, but one that happens to live in the cloud. Google Drive – so long as it’s purchased as part of a G Suite subscription – is actually a very decent fit for this use case. (However, most businesses will buy Microsoft 365 to access the Office applications, and so I tend to recommend steering clear or stepping away from G Suite for this reason.)

SharePoint cannot step away from its corporate roots as a tool for building extranets for large organisations, even though it is positioned now as a document management system for all business sizes, including SMEs. This creates both problems and opportunities. If you’re willing to “think big” with SharePoint, you get more opportunities than problems.

Most organisations will arrange their shared file store using a tree/hierarchy of folders that group together related things – and these things may be departments, business units, functions, projects, and so on. It’s not unusual to look at a mapped network drive in any business and see things like “X:\Marketing”, “X:\Sales”, “X:\HR”, “X:\Customers\ABC plc\Projects”, and so on. This has always been a natural way of organising computer file systems, and it’s been a model that we’ve seen in place for 40 years at least.

What SharePoint wants you to do at a basic level is create sites for each of these logical groupings – so in our example above we’d have a “Marketing” site, a “Sales” site, and an “HR” site. What SharePoint is designed to do is to allow each team to configure the site how they want. If you visit the marketing team’s site, you might see a list of marketing collateral. If you visit HR, you might see a notice about physical and emotional wellbeing services, and how you access them, etc. This is valuable in a larger organisation, but that level of customisation in a smaller organisation doesn’t offer that much value. What an SME user should do is just create simple, basic sites, in lieu of a folder on a disk that you would normally see on that per department model. You then upload the correct files to the correct site or – more pleasingly – configure OneDrive on the computer that you use to synchronise the files to your local machine. You then get the paradigm you’re used to – you see a folder structure that looks normal, but you get the win of having your files in the cloud, as well as everything being searchable within SharePoint. This last part about searching can be a huge win for even small organisations as it really allows you to unlock the value in the documents that the business creates.

In the above, I didn’t talk about what to do about the customers. This is where it is worth a SME “thinking big” in terms of SharePoint. When we’re talking about data that is used for operational purposes – i.e. we’re doing work to deliver some value to our customers, it is worth looking at some of the stuff that SharePoint can do that Google Drive cannot. What SharePoint is very good at is creating a “single pane” of glass over a customer. You can configure templates on either a customer basis, a project basis, or ideally both that does more than just showing a list of files. That template could be used to, yes, store files, but also present information on helpdesk activities recorded in the CRM, or show all the emails that have been sent to or received from the client, can show links to account management staff for the customer, and so on – i.e. you can configure SharePoint to put all the information related to a customer in one place where anyone in the organisation can access it.

It’s at that point when it’s doing more than being just a basic store of files, and it’s at that point that you can get real value out of it. (Especially considering the cost, which is essentially free.) When we’re able to collate and aggregate data in this way, we’re well on the way to becoming a data-driven business.

By Matthew Reynolds