Bo is a Principal Consultant for ThreeWill. He has 18 years of full lifecycle software development experience.
What is the potential for SharePoint Online as your knowledge base?
Recently, I’ve been doing a very in-depth evaluation of the SharePoint platform and uncovering this question from the eyes of the customer. Specifically, I’ve focused on features in SharePoint Modern, but I have even evaluated things like the classic Enterprise Wiki. There is a lot to be exited for on the roadmap with Project Cortex (part of a broader knowledge management conversation) and Project Turing (finally search that gets me). For this evaluation though, I figured let’s set aside the future and forget the past and focus on what you can do today.
According to Wikipedia, “A knowledge base (KB) is a technology used to store complex structured and unstructured information used by a computer system.”
Immediately, that definition speaks to SharePoint’s strengths as a content management system that excels at storing structured and unstructured information. But as we all know “the devil is in the detail,” and I wanted to share 5 specific KB related features and details on how SharePoint Online solves for them.
5 Reasons For SharePoint Online as Your Knowledge Base
1.) Powerful Authoring Experience
If you haven’t used the Modern SharePoint Page experience, where have you been? It seems like every day I find a new awesome capability that I hadn’t seen before. There are tons of web parts that can support just about anything you need from embedding videos, rolling up content like related articles, linking to related content and even embedding file attachments.
However, your most-used web part is likely the rich text editor which, as you’d expect, supports all the key formatting you’d need. You can even copy and paste from sources like Word and it will upload images from your clipboard automatically. When you’re editing, you can use the simple wiki syntax [[ to link to other articles as you type and not even have to slow down.
When you begin to understand how a Modern page structure drives you to author natively mobile responsive pages, you can get really creative and use sections and columns to structure your content in a well-thought-out structure that looks good no matter what device. In this age of mobile-first, even your knowledge base shouldn’t be bound by the confines of a desktop window. Modern page editing enables, enforces and encourages this by what they set forward with the available web parts.
2.) Change Tracking, Approvals and Version history
Version history is certainly nothing new in SharePoint. I’ve been preaching the gospel of major and minor versioning, publishing and content approval for probably 15 years. Honestly, this is just table stakes for any content management system. There are several features that are part of the Microsoft 365 platform that makes it better than average when it comes to managing content approvals, tracking changes and capturing version history.
Since Power Automate is the workflow engine in Microsoft 365, your Modern Pages library comes ready with the option to turn on a predefine Page Approvals automation. If you want to implement approvals for the major version publish of your KB Articles, it is a simple click and configure operation. If you have complex approvals with multiple layers you can customize your own approval automation and use it instead. Email notifications and approvals really shine in Outlook as well and allow approvers to review and approve with commentary right from their email.
Support for major and minor versions is the default in the site pages library, which is ideal. When this is combined with the option to only show your end-users the published (aka major) versions of pages, it gives your authors the confidence to iterate on drafts (aka minor) versions until they are exactly as they need to be with no premature viewing. Admittedly, this feature has existed forever, but its value and impact are often overlooked when the content is as important as a knowledge base article.
Where SharePoint Online really shines is how Microsoft has now started rolling out Page Difference Visualization for Modern Pages. This feature allows a user to see what has changed on a page. Think of it as Track Changes in Word, but cooler. You can see what text was added, removed or changed in a rich text editor, which is important for users to know what messaging has changed. Since a modern page is much more than just text, you can also see other web parts were added, removed or even changes made to their properties. Often these web part changes are just as important to the overall understanding of a page’s evolution as textual changes.
3.) Role-Based Targeting
It’s likely that your knowledge base is intended to be used by people with many different roles within your organization. Some may be front-line employees interacting with customers like a call center employee or customer service representative, and others may be back-office employees like the accounting department. You probably want to target specific articles to people based on these roles so they aren’t inundated by the noise of articles not relevant to their job.
Previous on-premise versions of SharePoint had support for audiences, but they were extremely difficult to create and manage. With SharePoint Online, support for audiences is greatly improved and enabling the use of them is a simple toggle for the Site Pages and also one in your News and Highlighted Content web parts. You can utilize Microsoft 365 groups and security groups that contain your target users and associate them with the specific pages that matter to them.
It’s important to remember that audiences are not security but targeting. If true security is your goal, SharePoint can still support that through well-defined information architecture. It can be something your article authors don’t have to think much about. They can simply author articles in the right place and SharePoint takes care of security trimming for them.
4.) User Engagement and Feedback
Another critical part of a knowledge base is allowing end-users to provide you feedback on the content they use to do their job. Modern SharePoint pages first enabled this with support for commenting on pages, but in recent enhancements have expanded on this feature set. Now not only can a user provide feedback or ask questions on pages, but they can use @mentions to target specific people with the commentary. Email notifications are sent out to page authors and anyone mentioned to ensure everyone is drawn into the content in question. If the visibility of page comments is of concern, you can easily have a Microsoft Form or Power App that enables a more controlled, secured and customized solution for feedback within your knowledge base.
Finally, modern pages contain a social bar that enables end-users to “like” and “favorite” articles in addition to showing the view count. For any content management system, especially a KB, it’s important to know what content is getting the most engagement. These interactions and the underlying usage reports help you understand engagement.
5.) Discovery and Search
The energy Microsoft has been putting behind the new Microsoft Search recently has been great. It is obviously much broader than just for a knowledge base. However, there are some interesting features that are very relevant to users of a KB. You can define acronyms and definitions, promote specific content (I always think Google ads), provide answers to questions and much more as a search administrator.
Features like managed metadata and site columns ensure all your specific terminology and taxonomy are available for articles, documents, and any other content. This provides you with the ability to provide structured information to your unstructured content (articles and documents). Search will crawl all your structured and unstructured content and this ensures you can find articles as well as documents attached to those articles in one place. You can even leverage your metadata to provide users with different ways to interact with search results.
We often think of search as only an end user-initiated activity, but it doesn’t have to be. Features like the Highlighted Content web part allow a knowledge base admin to promote content dynamically like trending articles for a given audience. Article pages can even show other articles you might be relevant based on the one you are viewing using Highlighted Content web parts. Also, check out my other blog post on Understanding SharePoint News Filtering Pitfalls.
Modern Search result customization features are coming later this year, but today you can still use the PnP Modern Search web parts. This allows you to craft search results pages that allow filtering based on your terminology and display of results in any format you choose a list, a table, or a card format. You can leverage synonyms and keywords and even exclude content from your results that can sometimes be a noise like folders and supporting images.
The five reasons I think SharePoint Online is great for your knowledge base are just the start. Everything that makes SharePoint a great content service and management platform apply equally to it as a KB. When you consider it’s just part of a larger eco-system that includes Power Apps (custom forms and apps), Power Automate (custom processes), and Microsoft Stream (video), the options for tailoring your KB to your needs is immense. Customers I’ve worked with on moving their KB to the cloud are not only excited that they can do what they’ve come to expect, but that now there are even more opportunities to do things they never thought possible.