Download our Guide to Remote Work: Microsoft SharePoint and Teams here.
Community IT Innovators has been helping clients move their file collaboration functions from on-premise file servers to cloud services for some time now. Generally, our go to recommendation is Office 365 SharePoint and OneDrive for Business (SP/ODfB).
Why? Our experience of Office 365’s Exchange Online email service is very good. We point our clients to Office 365 for email and have had close to 100% satisfaction. And once you’re using Office 365 for email, the value of using it for file sharing is greatly increased (the services are integrated), plus SP/ODfB integrates well with the Microsoft Office Desktop Suite, which our clients also already use.
It’s a manifestation of decades-old Microsoft strategy: create an integrated vertical suite of products, draw the customer in with a can’t-miss product(s) and then up- and cross-sell them your additional integrated offerings. This Ben Thompson blog post has more on this Microsoft strategy. The risk to the customer is that some parts of the vertical aren’t actually all that great, as anyone who implemented Microsoft CRM or FrontPage might recall.
For years we found SharePoint to be an upsell that was not worth the risks. We had tried SharePoint 2003 and SharePoint 2007 and SharePoint 2010, and while each version improved on its predecessors, none delivered enough value to be worth the time and investment they required.
We really weren’t won over until the iteration that came as a service with Office 365. Microsoft have been constantly improving their suite of services and that includes SharePoint, and now yes, we do like SharePoint:
- Accessing files in a web browser was clunky before, but the web is so fast now and we live in our browsers so much, it’s become comfortable.
- We like the search and discovery afforded by all the metadata options that SharePoint provides.
- We do appreciate the integration with the MS Office Suite. We’re used to Word and Excel and we do still use PowerPoint. Co-editing in the MS Office Suite is very cool.
- We’re coming to appreciate that Delve (Microsoft’s big data effort to know what files you need almost before you do – only available with SP/ODfB) could be a future killer app. We use it and somedays it really impresses.
- We like that SharePoint is available wherever we are online.
So, yes, we feel good about recommending SharePoint. We also will implement and support Dropbox for Business, and Box, and sometimes Google Drive or other Cloud File Sharing options. The last and most important bullet point above is true for all the cloud file sharing services and makes them increasingly useful in nonprofit settings.
But we’ve also learned some lessons about how we recommend SharePoint. We’ve executed SharePoint implementations flawlessly (technically) and had them fail for nontechnical reasons. Seeking to avoid such outcomes, our SharePoint sales process now almost feels like an un-sales process.
Here are some of the points we make before we sign clients up for an implementation project with us. You can find the slides from our March 2016 Webinar on this topic here.
SharePoint has to solve specific business needs, ideally specific business needs of the people who are going to use SharePoint
- Are staff wasting time and effort on convoluted machinations to access files when not in the office?Then the ease with which you can access a SharePoint file from anywhere on the Internet solves a specific business need.
- Are staff forever hunting for files they’re sure are on the file server, but it takes too much time because there are at least 3-4 logical places the file could be saved?The search and discoverability features of SharePoint could really help.
- But are you replacing a file server that more or less works for people and you think SharePoint might be a way to save on hardware costs? Or you just like the idea of the cloud?Why would your users support this change?
SharePoint is a net positive, but it’s not all positive. There are challenges, they are real and we address them upfront. We actually demonstrate some of these challenges in our un-sales process.
- Saving a document sent to you as an email attachment is a two-step process in SharePoint: save it to a swing space (maybe your Desktop or My Documents), then upload to your SharePoint library using your browser so that you can be prompted for metadata tags.
- Attaching metadata to files when you create them creates upfront friction with users. In our view (when metadata requirements are well designed), you’ll get your return on that investment over the life of the file from the increased discoverability and searchability that the metadata provides, but expect push back to this change as you add a step to saving a file.
- It’s a new paradigm: thousands of files stored together in a library with no folder hierarchy to organize them, sorted and filtered instead by metadata tags. Moving from a familiar paradigm to a new one takes time and getting-used-to.
- Working in a browser is different than working in Windows File Explorer. Web pages load faster than ever, but it’s not as fast as File Explorer loading the contents of a subfolder for you.
- There’s currently no way to create a document from a SharePoint stored template directly in the Office Suite. You need to create the document in your browser (Word Online) first and then open it in the Word desktop app.
- While we generally recommend NOT sync’ing SharePoint libraries to a local C: drive cache, it can be done and there are times when it’s quite useful. For Macs, though, it can’t be done. Macs can sync OneDrive for Business folders, but not SharePoint libraries. In a Mac environment, this *can* be a significant challenge.
Implementation takes time.
- What SharePoint libraries your organization’s files should be divided into, and what metadata the libraries should include, aren’t structures consultants can tell you in a vacuum. You need to meet with them, discuss your files and how you use them, and expect this process to take more than a single meeting. You will get to know the SharePoint paradigm and develop a little bit of your own expertise. And not just you, but key stakeholders throughout your organization. This takes time and you and others in your organization have to commit to it.
- After the libraries are built, metadata is populated, and files are migrated, staff who weren’t part of the design process will need to be trained (and need to learn through experience also) how to use the new platform. Again, this takes time and you and others in your organization have to be committed to seeing it through.
Leadership has to be on-board.
- The end user experience of Office 365 email is not fundamentally very different from on-premise Exchange email – so for such projects with low visibility of change, executive support is nice to have but not crucial to implementation. In fact, a measure of success is a seamless roll out of the new email. We go into projects like this with confidence that the implementation will succeed on technical merits and with support of IT staff.
- But we have learned that with any project where the user experience changes substantially, we can’t just convince an IT manager that SharePoint file sharing will be a net positive. We need the ED, CFO, COO, and all the key leaders to be on-board as well. We need to show the challenges of SharePoint to them and get their commitment upfront after seeing those challenges. If your ED learns at roll out he’ll have to do a two-step dance every time he saves an email attachment to a SharePoint library, and doesn’t see the business need that SharePoint is solving, SharePoint adoption will not get very far at all.
Really we are big fans of SharePoint and do think it’s a good solution for many of our clients. But we also realize that it’s a big undertaking and not one our clients should take on without knowing the challenges as well as the benefits that the platform delivers.