How to use SharePoint with your trusted partners

For many SharePoint is a bit of a black box. A large number of companies use it as an Intranet or document management system, but few really understand exactly what it can do. SharePoint itself isn’t entirely without blame. 

The platform has so many features and functions that it can be a little confusing for the average business user to know what it does best. Over the years we have tried to develop an easy way to explain SharePoint to customers. Our five-point summary of SharePoint goes something like this:

1. SharePoint is probably the best enterprise document management system available. Use it a bit like a business-friendly Dropbox via OneDrive, create documents with Office Web Apps, or store fully version-controlled archives of files. SharePoint has document management covered!

2. SharePoint makes for a great Intranet platform. It has rich content editing and publishing controls and integrates with the existing the user directories your company is probably already using.

3. SharePoint is a powerful collaboration tool. One of its core strengths is the ability to create dedicated self-contained sites that can store collateral for a single team or project. Content can be anything from files and documents, video and audio, to calendars and tasks lists.

4. SharePoint is social. The latest versions of SharePoint are really powerful social tools. Use it to find and chat to colleagues, take part in discussions, or just see what is going on in the office.

5. SharePoint also makes for a great Extranet. It is a powerful and secure way to work with external parties, trusted partners and even vendors.

Extranet or Intranet?

Depending on your experience with SharePoint you might be familiar with some of the above. Likely you know the first, but maybe some of the others are less clear. For many the fifth and final point will raise some questions. Maybe you’ve never used SharePoint to work with people outside of your company.

An Extranet is the name given to such a system. It is just like your Intranet - a place to store content, documents, and to collaborate - but it is accessible to trusted partners outside of your main company.

Extranets have a raft of benefits. They make it easy to share files, rather than emailing them back and forth, and even create documents collaboratively. They can be a place to chat, hold online meetings, and collect together notes and other collateral.

Building a great Extranet

So now we know what an Extranet is, and that SharePoint is pretty well suited to this use case, how do we go about building a great one? We think there are five key things to think about.

1. Where to host?

There are now several versions of SharePoint and different ways to host it. The biggest decision is between SharePoint ‘On Premises’ and SharePoint Online.

‘On Premises’ is the traditional version that many companies host internally, though it can be set-up by a third party and hosted externally. This version will need a little configuration to ensure third parties can access (see below).

SharePoint Online is hosted in the Cloud and is part of Office 365. Microsoft is putting a lot of its efforts into this version, and it does support some native functionality for external sharing of sites and content. It is worth bearing in mind that moving to the Cloud may have wider ramifications, outside of an Extranet, that need to be considered.

2. User access

SharePoint Online can be configured to use existing Active Directory. It also supports external sharing with users who have Microsoft registered accounts.

SharePoint ‘On Premises’ is nearly always integrated Active Directory for normal company user access. Extradium from RioLinx is a great way to add support for third parties. This add-on allows external users to be granted access by administrators via the standard SharePoint interface. There is no need to get IT departments involved, and no need to clutter up Active Directory with temporary or external accounts.

3. Security

The out of the box SharePoint security model is the perfect means to ensure third parties on an Extranet can only access content that has been explicitly shared. Sites, lists, or individual files and list items can be secured to specific users or groups of people. Permissions can then be set at different levels - read only, edit, full access or anything in-between.

SharePoint also supports the concept of ‘Site Collections’ which allows an Extranet to be created in its own separate container, logically separated from an Intranet or sensitive company information.

4. Sharing documents (and asking for reading confirmation)

SharePoint offers a wealth of document management features which makes it easy to work collaboratively on all manner of projects. Features include versioning, check in/out, publishing and approval workflows, and Office Web Apps for browser-based file creation and editing.

Our own product, DocRead for SharePoint takes these built in features a step further by adding the ability to distribute documents for required reading and formal acknowledgement. In an Extranet environment this is the ideal way to ensure partners sign up to any applicable terms and conditions or policies related to their work.

5. Feedback from partners

Building on the features of DocRead, DocSurvey for SharePoint allows Extranet users to be tested on their understanding and comprehension of documents. Utilising intuitive and easy to fill out surveys, DocRead makes it easy to gather a variety of feedback from external partners.

If you combine DocRead and DocSurvey with Extradium then this provides a fantastic solution for managing third-party risk

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