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What is SharePoint?

Most people find it hard to wrap their head around SharePoint and you might be one of those people. Perhaps you’ve been playing with this thing called SharePoint for a while and you don’t really get it yet. You’re waiting for that one simple description. That one simple sentence that will suddenly make it all make sense.

Well you won’t get that one sentence from me because SharePoint isn’t a simple thing to explain and that’s because SharePoint isn’t one thing. SharePoint is not a program. It’s a platform. It’s a collection of many different products and technologies all wrapped up and given a name.

From one perspective, learning SharePoint is like learning Microsoft Office. You don’t. You don’t really learn Office. You learn Word, then Excel, then Outlook, and so on. In the same way, you don’t just learn SharePoint. It’s a massive, massive set of solutions of different things you can do with this platform. With every version of SharePoint, Microsoft have added more and more to it.

When you learn the different things it does, you’ll pick and choose your own combinations of the things that are meaningful to you. However, it is a little different because SharePoint is a server product. You don’t install SharePoint on your own desktop or laptop. It’s installed on your backend systems and shared across your network. You connect to it.

You know, there are some associated programs that can install on your desktop. Things like SharePoint Designer and SharePoint Workspace, though you don’t always need them because the most common ways you’ll talk to SharePoint are either using a Microsoft Office program, Office loves SharePoint and the feeling is mutual, or just by opening a web browser to talk to SharePoint.

If you’re new to this, it still doesn’t tell you much. Okay, it’s big. It’s installed on a server, but what does it do. Well Microsoft talked about SharePoint as having six different areas. Sites, communities, content, search, insights, and composites. That’s not all that helpful yet. This is jargon. This is SharePoint speak. Sure we know what these words mean but these are terms that don’t really make sense in a product until we’ve gone a little deeper.

What I’d like to do is give you my version of this. First off, SharePoint makes websites. SharePoint makes websites. It’s a massive website engine. You tell SharePoint, “I need a website.” Bang. You have one. Make another. Bang. You get another. You don’t need special programs. You don’t need to be a web designer. You don’t need to be a programmer.

Well what are those websites? Well one might be a website just for you. Another could be a website for your team. Another could be a website for your company. Another could be a website for the world to see. You might be involved in creating these websites or you might just use SharePoint sites other people have made. SharePoint makes websites.

Unlike most websites out there on the internet where you just read them, most websites that SharePoint makes are designed for you to be a contributor. To change them. To edit them. To join in. That takes us to the second principle. SharePoint helps you work with other people. Maybe that’s just you and one other person working on a word document at the same time, SharePoint can let you do that. Perhaps you want a company wide Wikipedia or knowledge base easily editable by a hundred people. SharePoint can do that too. It can give you shared calendars. It can give you shared task lists, discussion boards. SharePoint will do all of this. It keeps track of immense amounts of content and can let you know when things change. The idea of collaboration is built into this thing.

That’s because you’re able to take all the content that makes up your organization’s day to day operations. Documents, spreadsheets, presentations, agendas, images, audio, video, even databases and take all of it and upload it all into SharePoint. That’s because SharePoint gives you a place to put your content. A place to put your stuff. Instead of saving it in local folders or on a network share drive or emailing it back and forth to people, you put it all into SharePoint. That’s where it goes.

Some of that content can be in places where it’s super controlled. Monitored, audited, available to just a few people where you can only put certain types of content. Another part could be a free for all dumping ground if you want that. You could put everything in there. This doesn’t add drag to your system. You continue to work seamlessly the way you used to. You’re simply saving everything in SharePoint rather than on your own drive. You create a document on your desktop, Bob makes an update to it on a meeting in his laptop. Alice accesses it later on a mobile device without worrying about how it gets from one to the other.

You can even edit it within the web browser itself. It’s all in SharePoint. Now obviously after a while, we can end up with a lot of stuff and a lot of people working together on that stuff. Well the danger is that we can’t find anything. The next part of SharePoint is dealing with search. SharePoint lets you search your stuff. It’s got a massive, super smart search engine built into it.

This is not some tacked on afterthought. It’s an excellent and complex search engine that not only allows you to search your own content in multiple ways, it will let you search people and it will do this all securely so no one gets access to anything they shouldn’t.

Now, all of these things would be useful but not compelling if you could still only work with your content in the old, conventional ways. In the next part, insights, SharePoint helps you bring all your information together. Not just bring it together, but bring it better to understand it better, to organize and make sense of immense amounts of content. Taking different kinds of things, spreadsheets and blogs and business intelligence systems, and presenting it in a way that makes sense. In advanced situations, you’re going to be building dashboards and scorecards and Visio diagrams automatically updated in real time with information inside SharePoint.

If you’re watching this, whatever your job is you’re almost certainly a knowledge worker. You’re paid to use your brain, not to do manual labor and that means you make decisions. That means you need data. Not buried in ten different locations, but right there combined the way you want it in front of your face. SharePoint helps you bring that information together.

When all of that isn’t enough, SharePoint helps you build on top of yourself. No platform, no program, no operating system can know exactly what you need so SharePoint has fantastic capabilities to be extended. It’s meant to be extended and customized and you don’t have to be a programmer. Using programs like SharePoint designer and in Visio you can build customer workflows and forms without code. If you do know code, you can do even more. SharePoint can also talk to your legacy applications and databases. It can read their data and allow you to have access to view and use it within SharePoint. Always controlled, always secured.

Now if all this seems like a lot, you’re absolutely right. The attitude to take more than anything SharePoint is not a program. It’s not a solution to a problem. It is a platform that you will use to build a hundred solutions to a hundred different problems. That’s why it can be hard to wrap your head around it because it’s different for you than it is for anyone else.

SharePoint makes websites. It helps you work with other people. It gives you a place to put your stuff. It gives you a way to search all that stuff. It helps you bring it together and understand it better, and it helps you build and extend it.

Many of these pieces are deep enough that you can spend months with them and never see everything. You might end up living in the sites section building a public website with SharePoint. You might live in the composite section building workflows or applications on top of SharePoint. You might live in insights building dashboards and scorecards to understand your information better. You might just share some of your documents into SharePoint and use it when you need it. It’s all good. By the time you’re done with the next few hours, you’ll have seen enough of all the major features to know if you want to go deeper and when you do the best way is to do it.

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