SharePoint & Office 365 has been growing as the core platform for a Digital Workplace, Digital Transformation and Intranet. However, I worked with several clients in which the creation of an External Network (in this case, SharePoint Extranets) has been more than beneficial for business process.
Permissions Management Warning
Before exploring the benefits, I would like the begin with a warning. The creation of an Extranet allows external users to gain access to your SharePoint environment. Please be aware that careful management of access rights will need to be adhered to, ensuring that external users cannot;
- Gain access to data and documentation that is not relevant to their engagement with you.
- Gain access to data and documentation that is only relevant to another External User engaging with you
- Identify other External Users on your network, whom may be competitors
If possible it is recommended to create an additional Site Collection to act as the host for your Intranet Sites. If this is not possible, then the minimum recommendation should be to create a Sub-Site. The reason for this is to ensure that External Users are contained, in case of permission errors. Therefore, I would not recommend sharing a single library within an Internal Network with Externals. If permissions are incorrect they will be able to access all other libraries.
A common issue I have seen with permissions on Extranets are that of inheritance. It is sensible to create SharePoint Permissions Groups for your externals e.g. ABC External Contribute & ABC External Visitors. However, you must ensure that different groups are used for different extranet sites, as just breaking inheritance does not safeguard you here. As an example, I have recently worked with a client who used Extranets for each supplier. The permissions had all been broken in regards to Inheritance as needed. However, the same External Contributor SharePoint Group was used to store all External Users. Therefore, all suppliers could access all other supplier documents & could see who they were competing with. Upon realisation, these permissions were quickly revoked!
When managing permissions, you must identify the way that will suit your industry best. Adhering to Governance, Policies and Procedures. As SharePoint allows external sharing then it is certainly not recommended to create any licences accounts for external users (unless absolutely necessary).
To invite externals, you must ensure that the user accessing will have a Microsoft Email Account (e.g. Office 365, Hotmail, Outlook, Live). This account will act as their credentials when signing in. I recommend that the External Sharing Invite is sent to the users’ work account. This will then associate that account as the name, allowing simpler permission reviews by the Administration Team. The user can then receive the link & still sign in with an identified Microsoft Account. The benefit of taking this approach is that it is easier to identify Joe.Blogs@Microsoft.com as being an employee of Microsoft & therefore needing access to the Microsoft Site – as opposed to Superstar@Hotmail.Com that could be anyone.
In some scenarios, I have identified that the clients wish to have more control over the account that is used to access the Extranet, and wish to test access before passing these to Externals. As Microsoft Accounts are free to sign up to, then this can be accomplished if you wish to create the account, share & accept the invite & then send these credentials out to your Externals. If you take this approach, please ensure that you are completely signed out of SharePoint & Office 365 before accepting the invitation (using Private Browsers will assist here) to ensure that you do not link your own Internal Account to the External Email Address you are setting up.
Document Management & Collaboration
SharePoint is all about document management & collaboration. This is where an Extranet really comes into play. Many organisations will work with support partners or agencies in which a service is delivered for them, or with them. It is in these scenarios where communication and collaboration is required. The common method for this is through email, with attachments being sent back and forth. By doing this you lose version history and the tracking of changes. With an Extranet, all parties can work on a single document. Users can also setup alerts to know when these have been updated. This allows for live collaboration with your External Network, as well as reducing email overload.
The sharing of data can also be of benefit to most businesses. As an example, Supplier Extranets are quite common practice with any form of production industry. The relationship between an organisation and their suppliers is critical. Under many Quality Standards (e.g. ISO 9001:2015) the Production Firm is responsible for auditing their suppliers, raising non-conformances & non-conforming materials. In response, a supplier may be expected to complete reports & actions based on findings – to prove that Corrections, Corrective Actions and Preventative Actions have been put in place.
Data Management, Analytics, Reporting & Power BI
The use of Power BI Embedded is another prime example of Data Management and Data Sharing. As an example, I have worked with a manufacturing company that had a collection of scorecards for their suppliers. They covered a combination of Non-Conformance Counting, Speed of Corrections, Frequency of Orders Delivered in Full & On Time etc. This data could all be captured in an Excel Spreadsheet and sent out monthly, however, this is not as efficient as providing a link to live data. The core benefit here is to push your supplier to work harder and perform better, increasing their rank amongst all suppliers. This then leads into increased performance of your own organisation as you can shorten timeframes for production & require less contingency for non-conforming materials.
An additional use of Power BI identified is that for service providers. In both the IT Industry and Facilities Management Industry; I have seen Client Sites setup within an Extranet. Not only does this provide an area to collaborate and communicate, it also allows for clients to view their statistics e.g. number of calls, length of open calls, call types etc. Provision of this data will benefit your organisation as a service offering that may not be provided by your competitors. Therefore, this would be expected to improve efficiency and improve income.
Extranets are perfect for Project Management as this once again requires collaboration and communication. A core benefit is that of task lists and project plans that can be adhered to in real time, as opposed to back and forth emails (again reduction of Email Overload). In some scenarios, a Project may require an Intranet and Extranet Sub-Site depending on how much data you wish to make available for Externals who are working alongside you e.g. Do they really need to see your budget and finances? If this is the case, you must ensure that an Extranet Sub-Site is shared with the Externals, but that documents then live where required. This should be identified in your Governance Documentation as you would not want to be moving documents from Internal to External (potentially losing metadata and version history) and you certainly do not want to have duplicates.
As I would hope you can see from the above, Extranets really should be considered for your organisations Digital Workplace and Digital Transformation. This provides an entirely new pathway and way of working with the platform you have at hand. Therefore, providing a better Return on Investment (ROI) and creating a more efficient workforce.
Do you currently use Extranets? Do you want to start using Extranets? Get in contact today for help and advice.
Written by our Senior SharePoint Consultant, Steve ‘SharePoint’ Glasspool.