Often described as “Microsoft Access on steroids”, SharePoint is a web based collaboration platform. What that really means is that it’s a mixture of database, document handling and website. i.e. all the stuff you need to move and handle any sort of information.
Initially a bit daunting, it’s actually easy to use. It has a huge array of features and functionality – We can really hit the ground running and get those processes and procedures formalised centrally within the organisation.
We use this tool a lot – look at this collections of Case Studies and examples where we have used SharePoint.
Why haven’t we heard of SharePoint before?
You might well ask – if it is such a big product that could really help you. Well we don’t think Microsoft do a good job a selling it. Of course by selling I mean advertising and marketing- Microsoft disclosed in 2012 that SharePoint is a $2 billion business so they must be doing something right. What they don’t do is educate medium to small businesses. Partly I guess because they don’t have to with developers like us doing it for them. Maybe they think it’s too complex for small businesses.
So what can SharePoint do?
Well I’m going to get a bit techy and excited here, but here goes!
Do you have multiple employees working on a single document, but you don’t want to lose track of what has changed and when? Only want certain people to me able to amend it or view it?
Not a problem- import the document into a SharePoint document library. Next you can be specific about who can access the document by setting read only, contribute or full permissions on either the entire library or the individual document. The document can be checked out and worked on limiting other users to temporarily have a read only view of the latest version. The version number will only increase when the document has been checked back in, effectively releasing it for all users. On top to this SharePoint will automatically create a version history letting the user know what has changed, when and by whom. At any point the document can be restored to a previous version. The normally complex task of auditing and moderating document changes becomes easy ‘out of the box’ with SharePoint.
So your document has been uploaded and is being audited by SharePoint. On top of that it is safely being backed up nightly using SharePoint’s automated backups. You find however that rather than having to log in and check the status of the document you would rather get an email notification every time it is checked in. That would take extra development right? No – SharePoint allows users to subscribe to alerts which are notification of changes to content on the system and can be used to trigger email confirmations. Again this is another out of the box feature and is available on any list or library.
Now that you have seen the capabilities of content control and alerts in SharePoint you decide you would like to take it to another level and introduce an authorisation hierarchy so that managers have to authorise changes to a document before directors are notified and asked for their acceptance. This would surely require a third party to come in and setup right? Not necessarily- Microsoft have released a brilliant tool in SharePoint Designer that allows end users to make SharePoint customisations. You could quite simply create a workflow using SharePoint Designer- a workflow is an automated sequence of actions or tasks that are related to a business process. A workflow instance is created for each item in a list or library- you create the rules and the workflow will apply them.
Another useful feature of SharePoint is the concept of views – Do you find your forms on existing or paper based systems have an excessive amount of fields? Usually as the day to day users need some information, and the managers want additional information captured, and then the directors want something else captured. Well SharePoint handles this perfectly by using views. Views are a useful way to create different screens to present information to the user. Different views might show different columns and have different sorting and filtering, grouping and styles. You can have as many views on a list as you like either public or private all using the same underlying data.
Doesn’t such a powerful application require a lot of architecture?
Yes and no – Considering the power of SharePoint it is surprising how undemanding resource-wise it is. You would however be looking at a reasonable server should you wish to host in house. Microsoft however appreciate that it is not always practical or feasible to do this for home or small business users. To combat this they offer what they call SharePoint Online- this allows organisations to benefit from the power of SharePoint without the hassle and cost implications of hosting.
Is SharePoint Online expensive?
Not at all- With packages starting a £2 per user per month it is remarkably cheap for the benefits it brings.
What else can SharePoint do?
Everything! – The out of the box functionality is so vast that it would be impossible to cover in a single blog post. Of everything mentioned we have just touched the tip of the iceberg. And where SharePoint doesn’t do something out of the box it is so extensible that it is very uncommon to not find a solution to any business problem.
Do you have a business problem needing SharePoint development support? Call Steve Bloomer for an informal discussion.