Technology update: Smarter information management
Photo: Roland Tuck.
 
Businesses today generate huge quantities of data: documents, spreadsheets, presentations, images and more. Organising all of this can be a nightmare. File sharing and collaboration tools can help, but only if they're used properly.
Microsoft has several information management products for businesses: OneDrive, OneDrive for Business and SharePointOnline. They are powerful tools, but they are often used incorrectly, so businesses don't get the full benefit of their power. Here's how to get it right, and revolutionise the way your business manages its files documents.
You're probably familiar with OneDrive for Business, which lets users work on documents and then sync them to a remote server. It's a bit like DropBox in that respect, and it's a useful tool. But Microsoft only intended this to be used for small projects, not for an entire organisation's document store. OneDrive and OneDrive for Business are functionally similar with the former being a free product, attached to an outlook.com account; the latter is a paid-for service managed at an organisational level.
According to Roland Tuck, business development manager at IT Engine, "Currently, OneDrive for Business has a 5,000-file limit for synchronisation, and the sync process is sequential. So if it gets stuck at file number 14 of 1,000, it can really hold you up. And if everyone's trying to sync their files, each with different folder structures, you can end up with a real mess. Microsoft are working on this and plan to release a new client in December 2015."
OneDrive for Business is fine for personal files or small projects, but only as part of a larger solution. That larger solution is provided by SharePoint Online, which is a powerful collaborative system for sharing and working on all sorts of documents.
SharePoint lets you set up a full information management strategy, arranged the way you want it. Some of the benefits of SharePoint Online include:
• Different people can work on most documents simultaneously – and see each other's edits in real-time – so there's no worrying about sync errors.
• You can build a full information management system, with metadata tagging and other powerful functions, without a great deal of SharePoint Online knowledge.
• Every time you change a document and save it, a new version is created. So you can always revert to a previous version.
• Tagging and searches add new richness to your data, so you can access it in new and useful ways.
• There are lots of add-on tools that you can use for data mining, reporting, presentation and more.
 
According to Roland Tuck, what ties everything together is Microsoft's Office 365. "When you get this for your business, you get SharePoint Online as part of the package. And the Business Essentials bundle is just $6.10 per user per month, which is incredibly cheap for the power it provides. It's free for qualifying not-for-profit organisations and educational establishments, too."
This means that any business can quickly get up and running with SharePoint Online. But to get the best out of it, you need to plan your strategy.
Delia Gill, MD of IT Engine, says, "There's no point in simply dumping all your existing files on SharePoint Online. We've been in business for 18 years and we have lots of old files and data. If we put all that on SharePoint Online without thinking about the structure, we wouldn't gain anything.”
“Instead, we're carefully assessing which files and documents to store, and in what way. This is forcing us to look afresh at the way we manage our information. And it's a team process: it's important to get everyone involved, because different people use information in different ways."
Roland Tuck agrees. "Don't put all your files on SharePoint Online straight away. Set up the structure the way you want it first, then add files as and when they are required. This way you avoid uploading documents that may never be accessed again. It's all part of information life-cycle management."
Half-day foundation courses  http://www.sharethepoint.com/training/course-outlines/discovering-sharepoint/ will give you a grounding in SharePoint Online. These will inspire you to manage your information in better ways, and enhance the productivity of your business.
All of this will take time, of course. But it's time well spent. Take a few weeks to carefully plan your migration to SharePoint Online . Involve all your staff. Think about the logical structure, the tagging, the tools you want to use to extract business information. Think about the way information flows around your business, and design your SharePoint Online setup to reflect that.
Once you have this foundation in place, it will save you time every day. It'll be like having your own CRM or data mining system, but at a fraction of the cost. It will streamline daily operations and help you compete with bigger businesses.
Whether it's a spreadsheet accessed by several users each day, or a full archive of carefully-tagged documents, SharePoint Online can make life easier. As Roland Tuck says, "SharePoint Online can help people realise the power of the information they already have."