As a newbie to the Microsoft Office 365 tool set, I am learning many things from itgroove’s founder Sean Wallbridge and the other consultants who work here. One of the Office 365 tools that I find super exciting and frustrating at the same time is SharePoint. I have been told SharePoint’s learning path is one that goes from hate to love, and my own journey with SharePoint has proven exactly that.
As our Managing Consultant, Alec McCauley, illustrates (click to enlarge):
As I learn a new tool, I like to get a good idea of why that tool exists. I ask questions such as:
- What is it?
- Why choose it?
- Why do we need it?
- What can it be used for?
This blog entry will attempt to answer these questions. My hope is that my response might prove useful to organizations looking into SharePoint.
What is SharePoint?
It took me a few months to understand what SharePoint is. Is it a website, or is it a storage platform? The interface makes it hard to decipher, as it has both of those components. Eventually, I settled on the following points to help me define SharePoint.
SharePoint does files and folders.
Just like any other cloud storage provider – DropBox, Box, etc. You can view a good comparison chart of the features for each provider here. I recently asked one of our interns who is still in university if students and teachers use the Cloud to manage their coursework, and he replied that most just use local files and folders. Everyone understands how to use files and folders after high school, so it makes sense that they are still part of data collection/archiving mechanisms. Local files and folders work well for individual, siloed record keeping, but since most organizations eventually develop the requirement to start creating processes and/or referencing content from multiple users, solely using local files and folders can become a nightmare. The functionality of linking or connecting files and folders simply doesn’t exist in files and folders. This brings me to my second point of what SharePoint is…
SharePoint is also a website.
If my memory serves me right, initially the idea behind websites was so that academics could publish their material in a uniform web format and link/reference others content and material. This idea democratized sharing and collaborating on documents. This website functionality, on top of files and folders, now allows the ability to link and relate content in a way that files and folders by themselves can’t.
With those two concepts in mind, SharePoint finally started to make sense to me. SharePoint combines both of things into one platform.
The strength of this integration is twofold: the users can still use their knowledge of files and folders and the web to work within the platform, while the administrators get the additional benefits of version history and change management.
SharePoint’s Secret Sauce
I warmed up to SharePoint once I understood that Microsoft simply took those two core concepts and merged them together, and I thought was starting to get it, but I still couldn’t see what advantage SharePoint had. After all, the other technologies like Dropbox and Box do those two things well, too – files and folders, and their website interface.
Then, I discovered SharePoint’s secret sauce:
- SharePoint has lists and metadata. Lists are are a storage mechanism that allows you to use mini databases to store data.
- SharePoint has automation.
The list piece was neat, as it that would allow storage of data in a database type manner… but the automation feature completely knocked my socks off! It was my “aha” moment for this tool. I felt like I understood why SharePoint existed. I wanted to shout, “Hello all, SharePoint has automation out of the box!” Talk about full-on love! SharePoint comes with an automation engine that you can use to automate to your heart’s content.
With SharePoint, organization process creators (managers, administrators, process engineers, etc.) get the ability to create and automate and truly optimize processes. In my personal experience over the years, I have concluded that it is these individuals (process admins or creators) within organizations who truly add value to an organization, by using technology to simplify and create better, simpler, and more efficient processes for their users.
SharePoint Does it All
Need an approval process for a vacation process? Need to be informed when a file/folder changes? Need to collect data with various stages of approvals and verifications? Check! It’s possible. SharePoint does it all.
With SharePoint, your data (files and folders), process management, and workflows can be created, managed, and maintained within one single platform. You can take all of your paper-based or manual processes and move them to SharePoint. With SharePoint, you have a tool by which you can evolve your processes to their next evolution: digitization. Why wouldn’t everyone want to re-engineer and optimize their processes?
Here is the beauty of this platform: in an organization, users will create their content, files, and folders. Some of the files and folders might become part of internal processes and workflows. How do you then manage and ensure this process stay consistent? Hello, it’s SharePoint again – this tool that does it all. The user gets their files and folders that they are used to. Managers, administrators, and process engineers get a platform by which to create, maintain, and optimize processes. The end result of all of this and the benefit to the organizations will be time savings and money savings.
I don’t know of many tools out there that give you all of this out of the box. In that lies the complexity and love/hate relationship with SharePoint, but ultimately, it’s this power that has me transitioning from the feeling of warmness to full-on love.