If your organization is using SharePoint Online, the “cloud” version of SharePoint hosted in Office 365, you get a major benefit that regular SharePoint 2007, 2010, 2013, and even 2016 don’t offer: the ability to share content with clients, vendors, customers, and others right within SharePoint Online. That’s because it lives in Microsoft’s servers as opposed to your own company’s servers.
The ability to share with outsiders comes as a result of the massive success of file-sharing services like Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, and Amazon Cloud Drive. In lots of organizations, people will just drop their files into these places because, hell, it’s just easy.
But these file-sharing services are not safe: you could be sharing really pricey intellectual property across a platform that has no reason to ensure your employer that their content is secure. These free file-sharing services also do not offer a lot of space; your personal accounts are usually limited to 15 GB or less if you’re not paying a monthly fee for more.
So Microsoft provided this functionality with SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business, both part of Office 365. With Office 365, your organization is paying good money to ensure the service is secure, easy, integrated, and always available. Plus, each SharePoint Online site and your OneDrive gets 1 TB (or even more) of space and support file sizes up to 10 GB. Need to share huge files? This is the way to do it.
Sharing requires some quick training
It’s not 100% obvious how sharing works. Worse yet, accessing shared content as the external user can be confusing. You have to create a Microsoft account to accept a sharing invitation the first time, which is not intuitive to most recipients; they expect they can simply log in with their typical user name and password they use at work. That’s not the case unless their company also uses Office 365, which many companies have yet to move to.
Below I have included two simple infographics that show both halves of the process: sharing and accessing. Here we’re assuming that 1) your SharePoint Online site offers the ability to share externally, and 2) your recipients are required to sign in to access the content (no anonymous sharing).
If you’re not sure whether you can share externally, ask your IT team. They’ll know. Your IT likely has rules in place on how sharing can and should take place, and you need to know these rules before you start sharing with external contacts. That said, if they currently don’t allow it at all, ask them why and point out that there are likely many people sharing very valuable content across insecure platforms like the free file-sharing services I mentioned above.
The other assumption—sign-in is required for the recipient to access the content—is reasonable because most employers have made this a requirement. Yes, SharePoint can support the option of sharing a link with any anonymous email, but it’s a slippery slope that most IT departments don’t want to get into. (It’s less secure than sharing content over another service like Dropbox.)
No special permissions required
Lots of people will begin to start sharing content using the SharePoint Online feature, so everyone needs to know how it’s done (and how it’s not done). You typically don’t have to have any sort of special elevated permission; once you have Contribute access to the site, you are most likely able to share content externally.