SharePoint Document Management - What It Is and Isn’t

By Joe Weller | July 1, 2016

Being paper-free is the goal of most offices, large or small, but taking control of digital docs can be just as complicated  a task as dealing with physical files. Document management can be an answer to the challenge of efficiently sharing and collaborating, storing and archiving, and ultimately eliminating outdated records. SharePoint for document management is usually high on the list of solutions to consider, simply because so many organizations are already using Microsoft products for other tasks. But is it right for you? In this article, we’ll cover what SharePoint Document Management is and isn’t, and provide seven key features to look for in a document management system.

What You Can Expect from SharePoint Document Management

Designed to be a collaboration and intranet building tool, SharePoint was intended to provide a secure place to store, organize, share, and access information. Since its launch in 2001, six versions of the browser-based platform have been released. Today, SharePoint is offered in on-premise, cloud, and hybrid versions.

SharePoint is part of a broad ecosystem of feature and function sets and has a constantly changing feature-set and complex licensing arrangements. Traditionally, it’s been deployed alongside Microsoft Exchange, Skype for Business, and Office Web Apps by mid-sized organizations, large departments, and large businesses. Since the release of SharePoint 2013, the primary distribution channel for SharePoint has been Office 365. 

Cloud-based SharePoint 2016 (released on March 14, 2016) was developed to improve the platform for many reasons, including an effort to enhance user experience and improve search in a world where personalization and speed are expected. For companies that don't currently have an on-premises deployment or need to have one for compliance reasons, this latest version can be licensed providing a less expensive approach to content management and collaboration. 

What SharePoint Document Management Is—and Isn’t

Most of the ‘what SharePoint is and isn’t’ points described below are true of SharePoint 2013 document management and earlier versions. Results of an early 2016 poll of 1,000 SharePoint users are telling: 

  • 72 percent used SharePoint Server 2013
  • 54 percent use SharePoint Server 2010
  • 19 percent use SharePoint Server 2007
  • 4 percent use SharePoint Server 2003
  • 1 percent still use the 2001 version

The reason many companies stay with earlier versions is that migration can be a major challenge, and come at a high cost in both time and money for users who have invested in customization of SharePoint on-premises. To further complicate making a move, custom web parts, custom Master Pages, and Page Layouts, may not function in newer SharePoint versions—which requires further customization. 

What is SharePoint document management?

  • It’s ubiquitous: SharePoint plays a dominant role in some of the world’s largest businesses, which means many workers use it as their intranet and document sharing experience. Thanks to the company’s propensity for bundling, SharePoint is now considered a $2+ billion business. 
  • It’s scalable: Since so many SharePoint users are MS Office customers, the platform can grow to handle multiple business requirements. This is particularly true for users who are using SharePoint as part of an Office 365 suite, where access to Exchange, Office clients, and web apps are also available in the cloud.
  • It’s customizable: According to Forrester Research survey, 65% of all SharePoint-using organizations add functionality to the core software. This customization is a good news/bad news situation. The fine-tuning required to meet specific organizational requirements creates the need for training and communication to get team members to adopt SharePoint document management. Security is tricky to manage out-of-the-box and larger companies often need third-party tools.
  • It’s time-intensive: It can take a while to get up and running with SharePoint, whether or not organizations decide to hire one of the many thousands of experts and consultants dedicated to training, development, and support. Larger organizations can take three to five years to successfully rollout and adopt SharePoint. In medium companies, one to two years and for small operations six to eight months.
  • It’s (now) mobile: SharePoint has been compatible with Microsoft mobile devices through Office 365 for a few years, but it now has a mobile app for iOS, with Android and Windows 10 mobile apps coming by the end of the year, according to Microsoft.

What are some qualities SharePoint document management doesn’t have?

  • It’s not sleek: The number of features SharePoint offers can make it overwhelming to use, understand, and navigate making training and communication to encourage adoption a must. Performance (particularly in older server versions) has been notoriously sluggish.
  • It’s not the friendliest user experience: Users have grown accustomed to personalized technologies. This difference between consumer-friendly technology and SharePoint can create frustration and (sometimes) dislike by users.
  • It’s not fast (enough): “Slow” has been a common complaint from SharePoint customers. The 2016 version has improved the search function to deliver results faster, and there are new ways to create sites and site collections more quickly, but it’s still a work-in-progress.
  • It’s not cutting edge: Although there are upgrades almost every other year to improve features and functionality, Microsoft often seems to be playing catch-up rather than leading innovation. Once upgrades are available, migrating to the latest version of SharePoint isn’t easy or inexpensive for shops already using it. It isn’t cheap, either. Although moving to SharePoint 2016 is simpler if you’re updating from SharePoint 2013, purchasing new licenses or upgrading existing licenses up the overall price. There is also the cost of training team members to use the new system that needs to be considered.
  • It’s not app friendly: Apps in SharePoint can seem like an afterthought rather than deliberate design updates. It can take extensive work to do anything beyond the basic tasks.
  • It’s access controls can have issues: One of the main challenges is that there’s no centralized way to control access to the document management infrastructure. Since SharePoint began, the volume of information, security-threats, and rate of change in businesses has grown exponentially, but the security model hasn’t necessarily kept pace.

While SharePoint has powerful capabilities and can be a good solution for large-scale enterprises that are already Microsoft-dependent, there are SharePoint alternatives to fit the bill for companies that want a turn-key answer to collaboration and document management. 

7 Key Features to Look for in Document Management Systems

While every business is different, there are still some overriding considerations before you choose a document management system. Whether you decide to go with SharePoint or an alternative, you may want to run through this checklist to ensure that you’re buying the right system for your organization:

  1. Cost-effective: Your purchase needs to provide a quick and meaningful return on investment (ROI). Cloud-based solutions tend to have lower licensing costs.  
  2. Search capabilities: You want a wide range of options to quickly finding files. You should be able to search by the file's name and it’s content.
  3. Ease of use: Intuitive use is a must for adoption—the more difficult a document management system is to use, the less effective it will be.
  4. Mobile access: Consider the working anytime, anywhere culture and pick a solution that smartphones and tablets can easily access.
  5. Integration: Easily integrate with the programs you already use, such as your email client and customer relationship management software.
  6. Collaboration and social networking: The ability for multiple users to view and add their contributions to a single document, usually in real-time, based on permission.
  7. Security: The system should restrict who can see specific documents, provide user ID and password management, role-based security, automatic logoff settings and audit control, certifications, and data encryption on-premise, hybrid, or cloud systems. 

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