Office 365 – SharePoint (Sites) and Small Business

Big enterprises and other large organizations are lucky when it comes to SharePoint (as part of an on premise install) because they generally have the development teams and the financial resources to really make the product get up and “dance”. It can be costly to really exercise on premise SharePoint to the maximum, just like it can be costly to exercise other productivity tools to the max. Just look at what it can cost to implement an ERP or other financial system! Small businesses and other small organizations don’t usually have the same resources available to them. And that’s sad in a way because small business can probably benefit more from the move to SharePoint than can large enterprises, relatively speaking. The reason for that is simple, small business generally lack the breadth of tools that large enterprises have. SharePoint provides a great big Swiss Army knife of tools, especially when the Enterprise functions are licensed, and that can be a boon to any business.

Large enterprises have been able to afford the SharePoint “Enterprise” bells and whistles in on premise installs for quite some time while small businesses have generally been priced out of that market. Office 365 and SharePoint Online change all of that! Microsoft has leveled the playing field, at least on Office 365, and many of the SharePoint Enterprise features that were so out of reach to small business in the past (costly on premise licensing) are now available in the “Business” as well as “Enterprise” Office 365 plans.

As technical professionals charged with implementing SharePoint we should keep in mind that small business generally doesn’t tolerate the timelines that large enterprises do, they want something to happen “right now”. Small, incremental steps and wins are the order of the day in the small business world. So how can we achieve some of those quick wins? What are some of the small but significant things that we can do to make Mr. or Ms. Small Business Owner feel quite pleased with his/her monthly Office 365 subscription fees investment? And don’t discount the fact that most small business owners only look at the subscription fee as the cost of having email; they don’t understand the breadth of the benefits that are available to them as part of their Office 365 subscription. Anything that you can do to make the business owner that much happier with Office 365 is “a good thing” for all concerned.

The first thing you can do is actually leverage the Team Site that is pre-configured within the Office 365 “Sites”. While it is not perfect, the Team Site template has some built-in goodness that you can start to leverage immediately.


(Default Team Site, default OneNote Notebook highlighted in yellow)

For one thing, all users within the Office 365 tenancy are granted full access to the site as part of the default settings. That means users can easily find the site (click on the Office 365 “waffle” then click “Sites”, pretty easy …) and then do something once they are there. One thing I and my colleagues at itgroove like to do is set up a document library to hold OneNote notebooks (this is NOT the OneNote that is included in the Team Site, more on that in a bit) then show users how to create OneNotes in the library. OneNote is an incredible tool (free to download if not already installed on user machine’s as part of Office) and very powerful. Once OneNote is shared out from a SharePoint library it can be accessed by multiple users at once and becomes a living repository of knowledge.

Getting back to the earlier comment about the library not being the same as the OneNote included in the Team Site; the Notebook (OneNote) included in the site template is a single notebook. Creating a library to hold OneNote’s provides the ability to store and access multiple OneNote’s from the one library. This expands the power of OneNote as you are free to slice and dice information any way you want. As an example, at itgroove we have personal OneNote’s in the library, a large OneNote that holds Customer related information, another that holds Marketing and Sales information and so on. And each of those notebooks can have many sections.

So here is the modification I made on the Team Site above (I added a Library named Corporate OneNotes and removed the Notebook link):


Clicking on the Corporate OneNotes link gives us this:


Now there are two OneNotes in the library that can be used for specific purposes and shared with users. Simple and effective way to make OneNote notebooks easily available (and, yes, you could do something similar with OneDrive for Business; this just gives you a bit more overall control and aggregates access in a central site.)

Another thing that can be done is create one or more document libraries to hold other Office files (Word, Excel, and so forth) then within those libraries, create standard templates used by the business and make them available via the Files à New Document selection on the Ribbon Bar. Having templates available from the Ribbon Bar can be a great way to ensure that users always start with the correct and properly branded document template and saves them from having to root about in the system or their local folders for the correct template file. This is an example from one of the document libraries in our office (itgroove):


Of course the “big bang” for many businesses – small or large – is the fact that the Office files are available on pretty much any device that can connect to the Internet and access Office 365. A user logs into Office 365, navigates to the Site and into the document library, clicks on the desired file and SharePoint displays the Office file in the web browser session and makes it available for editing in that session regardless of what the local device is or whether Office is installed on the device. Add in the new free Office Apps for iOS and Android (they do require an Office 365 user account to function) along with full Office on a PC or Mac and users are completely empowered to work on their files anytime, anywhere (this article is being written in Word on a Samsung Android tablet and then proofed on a PC). This is functionality that cost a lot of money to implement in the on premise world; rare was (or is) the small business that could afford it. Now it is part and parcel of the Office 365 subscription!

You cannot overestimate the importance of this seemingly simple technology. Small business owners very quickly grasp the power of this capability because it now lets their staff get at the information where and when they need it. As an example, sales people don’t have to haul around tonnes of paper, a tablet with WiFi is all that is required. Easy to implement and a big win right out of the box.

Extending this idea, why not make a site that is available for internal and external users to share? Going back to the Sales people as an example, maybe the business needs to make certain documents available to both internal sales staff and their customer base. Maybe those documents change frequently like a weekly price list or weekly sales flyer. Maybe the business wants to put their catalogue online but does not want the “general public” to access it. All of this could be done from the business’s external website but that doesn’t have the benefits of being fluid and “live” like a SharePoint site. And this is where the next simple and quick win comes into play.

Microsoft allows for unlimited external users to be granted access to “internal” (not public facing) SharePoint sites in Office 365. All that needs to be done is to “share” the site with an external user via the Share button on the top right-hand of the Site page. An external user does require a Microsoft Live ID, an Office 365 ID (from another tenancy) or a third-party ID that can be linked back to Microsoft authentication such as a Gmail account. The sharing process will send an email invitation to the external user, the user then clicks on a link in the invitation and authenticates against their particular provider (like Microsoft Live) and they are then taken to the SharePoint site URL. A simple process, to be sure, but one that provides many possibilities. It beats hell out of putting files on a public site as they are “hidden” from all except those users, internal or external, that have been granted access. The files can be set to read-only and can be displayed in-browser, if that is the requirement. The files can be “live” because they are in SharePoint. Think of the possibilities of giving internal and external user’s access to an OneNote! Think of how users can collaborate in real time!

The thing to make note of, here, is that this functionality costs a considerable amount of money to implement on premise. Spending upwards of CAD$30,000 to license the appropriate bits and pieces and provide the appropriate number of servers to support the functionality is not at all uncommon. And that money is on top of what is already required to provide the on premise SharePoint farm. This is functionality that is pretty much out of reach of small business unless they are on Office 365! Talk about “bang for your buck”! And it is so easy to implement in Office 365 that it should be on the list for the easy “wins”.

The last simple trick that seems to make small business owners pretty pleased is the ability to create “contact lists” in SharePoint that are available online and that can be easily “plugged in” to individual user’s Outlook with the click of a few buttons. These are not to be confused with contact lists created and maintained in Exchange. These may be customer lists or something similar that need to live in SharePoint for any number of reasons including accessibility by external users. Rather than recreating the information inside Exchange the list is just linked to Outlook by the user as required. A simple trick but very effective and another easy win.

Here’s the connection as listed in one of our Shared Contacts lists at itgroove:


Clicking on the “Connect to Outlook” icon will make a connection from this list into the Outlook Contacts and then allow Outlook to display and use all of those Contacts just as you would with any other set of Contacts. Ridiculously simple but very effective and, once again, centrally controlled.

I hope these few tricks and tips will prove helpful!