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Improve collaboration with SharePoint Online

Collaboration is never easy, and it only gets harder as more collaborators become involved in a given project. In 2001, Microsoft launched SharePoint, its attempt to solve the common issues businesses encounter when trying to enable large groups of staff, sometimes from different business areas, to work together easily and efficiently - with close to 80 per cent of Fortune 500 companies using SharePoint, it seems fair to say it has successfully achieved its goal.

That Microsoft offers SharePoint Online as part of its cloud-based Office 365 suite should come as no surprise, therefore. Despite the fact that SharePoint has a large install base, Microsoft understands that increasing numbers of businesses are looking to cloud-based alternatives to traditional software installations. Not only does SharePoint Online move all those invaluable collaboration tools to the cloud, but it also opens up that functionality to a far wider audience.

The key difference between SharePoint and SharePoint Online is also the key advantage of the latter. To run SharePoint traditionally a business would have to purchase a license, either allocate or buy a server to run the server software, and of course have staff to maintain that server and installation - costs that could run into the tens of thousands of pounds. SharePoint Online instead incurs a per-user cost, and makes the administration Microsoft's responsibility, while also offering a 99.9 per cent SLA for added peace of mind.

As well as encouraging, or at least enabling, existing SharePoint users to migrate to the cloud, the low barrier to entry of SharePoint Online also lets Microsoft pitch its product at businesses for which SharePoint on the server was simply too expensive. Access to SharePoint online starts at £3.50 per user, per month, with a £6.50 option available to businesses needing to use Visio services or host simple Access databases - a far cry from the almost £5,000 cheapest SharePoint license cost. And if you go for an E3 Office 365 plan, you'll get all the SharePoint functionality thrown in as part of £15.75 per user, monthly subscription fee.

SharePoint Online could completely change the way your workforce collaborates. You may be familiar with the traditional way of having multiple people collaborate on editing a document: one person creates it, then sends it out to be read through; another person then makes some changes and sends that version out. Meanwhile a third person is making their own changes and sends those out to the group. After a few iterations of this cycle, half a dozen different versions of the original document are in circulation, and no one is willing to take the responsibility for merging the various changes.

If you're lucky, you may at least have a shared server space, in which case all of these edits are happening to the original document, and the last step is someone accidentally deleting it, requiring that the cycle start again. It sounds ridiculous, because it is, but yet this is how a great many businesses do work.

The solution introduced by SharePoint Online is to not send the document at all. Instead, users are given access to it on the SharePoint site, ensuring that there is only one version of the file in circulation. When being edited, files are 'checked out,' letting others know they are in use, ensuring that the all-too-common scenario of having multiple, conflicting versions of a document in circulation never arises.

SharePoint Online also offers the option to keep multiple versions of stored documents saved online. The simplicity of enabling versioning means it's far more likely to be used, making it very unlikely that changes cannot be reverted if needs be, while also keeping a record of who has made changes to the document. It's worth noting that unlike the Track Changes feature of Office, which isn't guaranteed to persist (simple copy and paste into a new document defeats it), SharePoint Online keeps a permanent record of who has made changes to all documents. As a corollary to versioning, SharePoint Online also offers a recycle bin, so if a file is deleted by mistake, it can be recovered.

As well as keeping a record of the changes made to documents, SharePoint Online also provides the ability for users to be notified about them. This means that collaborators don't need to keep checking to see if necessary changes have been made to a shared document, they can instead sign up to be notified when any changes have been made. If there's a large number of collaborators, this can prove a much cleaner option than the usual alternative of long email chains declaring who made what change when.

These benefits become even more pronounced if collaborators are working in different locations, or across different time zones, as SharePoint can alleviate many of the frustrations that a distributed workforce can cause. First, because documents are stored online, the latest version is always available to everyone who needs it. Perhaps more importantly, because SharePoint Online has users 'check out' a document when working on it, there's no risk of two people making changes to the same file at once without being aware that there's potential for conflict.

Taking collaboration a step further is the integration with Office 2010 (and 2011 - Mac users aren't excluded), which enables multiple people to work on the same document concurrently. This can be particularly useful when performing document reviews; rather than having multiple people crowd around one computer and shout out necessary amendments, or suggestions, each co-worker can use his or her own PC to make or pitch changes.

Where offline access is needed, Microsoft offers SharePoint WorkSpace, which synchronises between SharePoint Online and a local Windows PC whenever a network connection is available. This ensures that documents can still be worked on in circumstances where 'the cloud' isn't available, such as on an aeroplane.

Taking the ability to edit SharePoint documents anywhere a step further, is its integration with the Mango version of Windows Phone 7, which has SharePoint access built-in. Obviously this requires that users buy a handset, or have their company supply one, but as the Office apps built into WP7 are surprisingly capable it isn't as crazy an option as it may sound - even fairly long edits aren't too much of a chore using a WP7 handset.

An advantage of the integration with Office 365, is that documents stored in SharePoint Online can be edited in the Office web app, so it's possible to make changes to stored documents even on a computer without Office installed. Moreover, because all documents in SharePoint Online are hosted in 'the cloud' they can be accessed from anywhere. Businesses unable (or unwilling) to provide VPN access to their internal networks, but which want to provide remote access to shared documents for their staff, should be particularly attracted by this.

In addition to providing these tools for managing individual documents, SharePoint Online also extends this flexibility to groups of them, which it calls Libraries. Document Libraries provide a simple to use, but powerful, way of organising collections of related documents, and controlling the levels of access that groups of users have to them.

Small businesses might get away with only having one collective library for everyone, but in a larger business multiple libraries could be used to keep various departments or projects segregated. Not only can this ensure that users of SharePoint Online aren't overwhelmed by having to wade through hundreds of irrelevant documents to find what they need, but it also makes securing access to documents easier.

Groups of users can be given various levels of access to different libraries. So, for example, managers could keep staff records in a secure library, to which employees have no access, while customer records could be kept in a library to which all staff had read access, enabling them to view that information, but not edit it. Of course, should it be required, documents in libraries can still have their individual permissions changed.

Document Libraries aren't the only type of collection offered by SharePoint Online, there are Form, Picture and Wiki Page libraries, too. These provide collections that are better customised to the types of data within - picture libraries, for example, offer thumbnails and a slideshow of their contents.

Stepping up from Libraries are Sites, which provide groups of users their own space to organise libraries and documents. The advantage of Sites is that they provide cleaner isolation than simply using Libraries and permissions, with the disadvantage being that data cannot be shared across Sites. However, they make perfect sense for separating groups of staff, or projects from each other.

Slightly confusingly, SharePoint Online also offers another features under the name of SharePoint Sites. Unlike Team Sites, which organise documents, SharePoint Sites group web pages. These can be either publically available, on the Internet, or limited to internal use as an intranet on the Internet. For businesses keen to have a public web presence, this is certainly a cheaper, albeit not easier, option than hiring a dedicated web developer.

A well-managed intranet can be a valuable aide to staff trying to find important information about other areas of their business. Basic static pages can host important data, such as company policies, or expense forms, which staff need easy access to. More adventurous uses include creating staff, or team profiles, detailing what various people and teams do within your organisation, which can make finding the right man/woman much easier than a trawling through a list of names in a company directory.

Data stored elsewhere in SharePoint Online can be embedded in these pages, from calendars, giving quick information about upcoming events, to announcement lists, which let project managers convey important information to collaborators. For frequently changing information, or communal areas that you want anyone to edit, wiki pages are a perfect fit. These enable staff to share useful information with each other, without the hassle of creating full-blown site pages.

For more in-depth updates than announcements, SharePoint Online enables users to create blogs. As well as letting team leaders, or collaborators publish a record of the progress of various projects, these can also give staff the opportunity to share more personal updates about their own activities with their peers. These can have RSS feeds, do readers will be informed of updates without having to visit the sites directly - encouraging staff to keep up-to-date with important developments.

Building on this are SharePoint Online's discussion boards, which give members of each team a private forum-like venue for communicating with each other. The advantage of these boards over group emails is two fold: both the separation of different discussion points into distinct threads, and the arguably, improved display format. If real-time collaboration is needed, SharePoint Online integrates with Microsoft Lync Online to provide it; unlike discussions boards, however, this option won't work very well when collaborators are in widely different time zones.

SharePoint Online also capitalises on the developments Microsoft has made in search technology for Bing, by offering a comprehensive search feature. A plethora of filtering options exists, making it easy to find documents of a particular type, pages containing a particular thread of information, or files created by a particular person. The downside is that exploiting this powerful search ability requires learning some specific syntax, but for users spending a lot of time with SharePoint Online, that will be a worthwhile learning experience.

It's clear that SharePoint can be a major asset for businesses that are willing to put some time and effort into updating their workflow. Not only can SharePoint Online improve collaboration between co-workers, it also provides secure off-site storage for important documents, and does so at a predictable cost, in a way that scales from just a few, to many hundreds of users. It might not be the perfect solution to every collaboration problem a business faces, but it will definitely help overcome many of them.