How to Define the Platform That Is SharePoint
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. Now you won't get that one sentence from me, because SharePoint isn't a simple thing to explain. That's because SharePoint isn't one thing. SharePoint is not a program. It's a platform. It's a collection of many very different products and technologies, all wrapped up and given a name.
And 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. And 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. And with every version of SharePoint, Microsoft has added more and more to it. When you learn the different things it does, you'll pick and choose your own combinations, 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. Now 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 up a web browser to talk to SharePoint.
But if you are 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 talks about SharePoint is having six different areas. Sites, Communities, Content, Search, Insights and Composites, but 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. So what I'd like to do is give you my version of this, that 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. 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, and you might be involved in creating these websites or you might just use SharePoint sites other people have made, but SharePoint makes websites.
Now 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, and that takes us to the second principle. SharePoint helps you work with other people, and 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 and 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.
And 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 driver, or emailing 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. And this doesn't add drag to your system.
You continue to work seamlessly the way you used to. You are 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, Alex 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 it that we can't find anything.
So 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 tacted-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 whole 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, but in the next part, Insights, SharePoint helps you bring all your information together and not just bring it together, but bring it together 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 make 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 are almost certainly a knowledge worker. You're paid to use your brain, not to do manual labor, and that means you make decisions and that means you need to data, not buried in 10 different locations, but right there combined the way you want it in front of your face. SharePoint helps you bring that information together.
And when all of that isn't enough, SharePoint helps you build on top of itself. 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 custom workflows and forms without code, and if you do know code, you can do even more. And 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 and 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, and 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.
But 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. Now many of these pieces are deep enough that you could spend months with them and never see everything. You might end up living in the Site 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, or you might just save some of your documents into SharePoint and use it when you need it.
It's all good, but 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 ways to do it.
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