Ask any SharePoint expert this question and you’ll likely get a different answer from each.

 

In the most general sense, I define SharePoint as Microsoft’s online web development platform. It purposefully comes relatively blank so you as a consumer can make it what you want. It offers tremendous opportunity to customize and build smart business solutions to enhance collaboration, information sharing, networking, and employee productivity.

 

How’s that for an as-general-as-you-can-get-in-a-useless-sort-of-way definition?

 

There are different versions of SharePoint. You can get a history of the platform here if you’re so inclined (SharePoint dates back all the way to 2001). Most people are familiar with SharePoint 2007, SharePoint 2010, SharePoint 2013, and Office 365/SharePoint Online. These are all different versions of similar solutions, but coming at different times or offering different features. SharePoint 2016 was recently announced and a preview version is currently available for IT professionals.

 

The problem with SharePoint “out of the box”—a phrase I will use regularly, which implies using the tool as it comes from Microsoft, with minimal customization or third-party plugins—is most people aren’t creative geniuses that immediately know how to create their own Mona Lisa with a blank Etch A Sketch. SharePoint, in my opinion, is too bare. There’s not enough inspiration built in, no catalyst to spark exceptional usage ideas. And no centralized, high-quality training out there to bring on that inspiration, that catalyst. That’s what we’re trying to change with icansharepoint.com.

 

You’ve probably experienced SharePoint’s most popular functions, which I’ve listed below with some detail into what they are and how they work. This will give you a jumping off point for where you can go with SharePoint at your employer. Though it by no means shows you how to use it. That comes later.

 

Web Publishing

Most businesses that employ SharePoint use it to host their intranets. An intranet is an internal collection of websites, usually with one central (corporate) home page and many other sites, pages, and content specific to your organizational structure. Normally, departments, groups, and teams will have their own websites to hold contact information, important documents and media, and other useful stuff. The content is considered “ready for prime time” and not in draft mode, similar to what you’d find on any public-facing website. Permissions are generally wide, with most employees having access to the information to help them do their jobs.

 

Some SharePoint customers keep IT in control of these sites; others provide control to the content owner. In the latter setup, the IT department would, for example, train a representative from Human Resources to build and maintain the Human Resources SharePoint site.

 

Some companies also use SharePoint to build their external (customer-facing) websites, too. This is becoming less common with time, but a number of major websites have been or are developed using SharePoint. Note that they rarely look anything like the SharePoint you know because while they’ve been built on the SharePoint platform, they’re specifically tailored to not look like SharePoint. (It wouldn’t be good for their brand identity if the big blue SharePoint “S” logo showed up in its usual top-left corner placement, would it?)

 

Collaboration

SharePoint is likely best known for its collaboration functionality. Basically, websites in SharePoint can host content, files, etc. in a centralized location so multiple individuals can access the content, edit it, and keep track of changes in one place. Rather than emailing attachments to multiple colleagues for review, sign-off, whatever, you can host the file in SharePoint, share the link with your colleagues. This keeps everything in one central place and removes the need for multiple copies of the same file. The one copy is the copy, your master. Any updates, changes, or comments are made directly to your master copy. Track Changes in Office helps you identify who made which changes, and version history in SharePoint ensures you can see the history of the file as it’s been edited by your colleagues. No more guessing which file is the right one. It’s always the master.
Generally, collaboration sites have limited permissions because you only want the people that need to provide input to have access while the work is in a draft mode. Once you’ve completed your draft, you can publish it to the web publishing area mentioned above. Collaboration sites can be owned by IT or the content owner.

 

Enterprise Social

This is a technical term for the My Sites section of SharePoint, which you may know as your internal profile, the Newsfeed, and OneDrive for Business. (In Office 365, you may have heard of Delve, Clutter, and more. We’ll discuss those later.) My Sites have likely seen the most change from SharePoint’s early days, starting as a very simple profile in SP2007 to now being a robust social media platform meant to compete with the likes of Facebook and LinkedIn. Well, sort of compete.

 

The My Sites offer a way to network and keep in contact with your colleagues. While some will sarcastically refer to it as “Facebook for work”, it’s not. It’s way more productive and useful than Facebook ever could be in a corporate environment. You should make an effort to add information about yourself, especially your skills, past experience, and projects so others in your network can find you if they need relevant help. The SharePoint organization chart is also hosted in the My Site area.
The Newsfeed is useful for asking open-ended questions; you might get the answer you’re looking for from someone you wouldn’t otherwise have met. It’s also a good place to praise others, report status updates on projects, and share news. By promoting public dialogue among your colleagues (no matter where or who they are), there’s a real chance that you’ll get a better product thanks to the instant feedback potential. The Newsfeed supports the use of hashtags, which you can follow to stay up to date when people are talking about topics that interest you. For example, Excel users always seem to like to use and follow #excelninjas and #excelhelp to share best practices, provide help, and train others. (Excel power users are always awesome people.) The Newsfeed is limited to SharePoint 2013.

 

OneDrive for Business is its own separate beast. As Microsoft’s somewhat delayed answer to the hipper, earlier-to-the-scene Google Drive, it offers you 1 terabyte of space to store the content that you’re working on that isn’t appropriate to keep in a team collaboration site. Basically, it’s the 21st-century replacement for your C:\ drive. (Clearly in the Internet Age, we shouldn’t be saving anything to our C:\ drives anymore, right people? Right!?) OneDrive for Business lets you share your information with any email address you’d like. It also syncs to your personal device so you can access your content when you’re not connected to wireless. However, there’s a catch: the 1 TB storage sounds great, but there are a number of other restrictions that Microsoft isn’t so open about (a size limit per file, for one). The next iteration of OneDrive is going to be way different and not just a replacement for your C:\ drive; it will actually be a central portal to all content that you use regularly. More on that when the time comes.

 

My Sites are usually owned by your IT department. You update your profile yourself and store your own content on your OneDrive, but some information is seeded by IT.

 

Enterprise Search

SharePoint offers a search engine that provides results from all of the environments in your SharePoint setup. “Enterprise search” just means it’s a search engine for your whole company/network, or… enterprise. SharePoint search trims the results based on what you have access to. So you won’t see files you shouldn’t see. Search has come a long way from SP2007—when it left many users wanting a more Google-like experience—to the incorporation of FAST search (a vendor product that Microsoft purchased and included with SP2013).

 

The SP2013 search engine provides reasonably good results and also incorporates “refiners” so you can quickly scrub your results of extraneous information. (You know, kind of like Google.) There are always ways to make search better, but the two most important are 1) learning how to search smart and 2) pushing your content owners to use metadata so the search engine has more information to use. Yes, SharePoint does full-text search, but the full text of documents isn’t as valuable to the engine’s algorithm as metadata like the file name, title, author, and especially keywords. No word from Microsoft on what the contextual value of metadata is compared to full text, though. I’ve asked. Either they don’t know or it’s far too proprietary. I’ll venture a guess that’s a mix of the two.

 

The search function is owned by IT or a centralized content management or knowledge management group (if your company happens to have that luxury).

 

Productivity Tools

SharePoint comes with a bunch of tools that you can use to help make your day more productive. You can use SharePoint alerts to keep you informed when someone makes changes to documents you’ve got out for review. SharePoint calendars can be used to keep track of who’s in the office when, and you can connect this directly to Outlook and toggle on or off in your personal calendar. Wikis are a great knowledge management tool that give a team the ability to collaborate in an informal, user-friendly way. Discussion boards are great for centralized communication among your team to help make decisions. Sure, you can hold these conversations in email or Skype/Lync, but a discussion board is indexed by the search engine, so others can benefit from your shared information.

 

At the more advanced levels, SharePoint integrates seamlessly with Outlook; you could literally never leave the Outlook app if you connect your favorite sites and libraries to it. Additionally, workflows offer a way to automate your business processes. They can be handy as long as you have someone with the skills to develop and maintain them.

 

Check out more tools here. Most of these tools will work for any user without any special permissions.

 

Office Online Apps

SharePoint now includes Word Online, Excel Online, PowerPoint Online, and OneNote Online with SharePoint 2013 and Office 365. (For SharePoint 2013, they are still known as “Office Web Apps”, not “Office Online”.) These apps are helpful for ensuring that no matter where you’re accessing SharePoint, you’ll have the right version of Office to read and edit your content. They come in handy when, say, you’re traveling and are stuck using a public computer that doesn’t have the most up-to-date version of Office (think of that old hotel computer, or your grandparent’s laptop that still runs Windows XP).

 

Office Online Apps are likely set up and maintained by your IT group.

 

Conclusion

Yes, I missed a lot of other aspects of the SharePoint platform. But remember, we’re talking about the typical, everyday user here. These are the basics that can really help you understand what SharePoint is, how it’s used in your network, and how to get the most out of it. Advanced features are always there, but you should talk to your IT group before moving into those topics because you’ll likely require additional training.

 

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So, what is SharePoint?