Most users, even home-based consumers, have at least some acquaintance with Outlook. Not as many people have had occasion to work with SharePoint. Traditionally, this application was aimed more at businesses large enough to need a way for geographically disparate employees to collaborate on projects. However, the world has grown more mobile, and today’s five-person company may not even have a central location. Yet the need remains for everyone to stay on the same page when it comes to where documents and data should reside. Even school kids know the problem. “Which drive did I put that on? Is the version on my flash drive more current than the one on my C: drive?” Trouble gets compounded by the usual practice of attaching documents through email across multiple participants. It’s chaos.
By making the cloud the authoritative location for all files, though, such problems vanish. Users simply “check out” a document to work on it, then, check it back in when finished. There’s no more confusion over which version is current because only one user can have modification rights at any given time, and as many historical versions can be saved as needed.
What we’ve described here are document libraries, but that’s only one of the many things SharePoint Online tackles. On a broader scale, SharePoint is meant to help define, organize, and manage collaborative groups. Admins can create cloud-based group workspaces and grant individuals access to only the workspaces they belong in. These workspaces can take on a host of forms and functions, and SharePoint helps reduce the creation time of these spaces to only a few minutes thanks to a wide selection of templates.
Essentially, SharePoint gives you a slew of site building blocks with which to populate these workspaces. These could be file repositories, blogs, wikis, task lists, shared calendars, surveys, RSS feeds, or many other items. One of the coolest capabilities in the application is workflow management. This essentially breaks down a task into a series of steps and if/then operations, and at each point, users who own each step can indicate the status for that element. Visualizing how this could apply within a workgroup, such as in preparing a batch of press materials for a product launch, is fairly easy. But consider other applications. Some could be less serious, such as organizing the company picnic, while other applications could help improve operations even outside the company.
For example, consider a small firm, Company X, with several vendors. Company X’s accountant decides to use SharePoint Online to help organize the invoicing and payment processes. The accountant gives one of the company’s 10 or 20 BPOS licenses to the payables rep at one of the vendors. With this, the vendor can tap into Company X’s SharePoint workspace for accounting and check off the various tasks at hand, such as receiving an invoice, getting it approved for payment, and issuing a check. With the process visible via SharePoint, there’s no more need for time consuming phone calls or emails between the two parties, and both can cooperate more efficiently.