Home Workforce Productivity Office 365 and OneDrive for Business: Collaborating with External Users

Over the past decade, we have seen dramatic changes in the way people – and businesses – share and collaborate with digital information. But as technology changes, one thing remains constant: we want it to be seamless and easy. Microsoft has been paying attention – with SharePoint Online and OneDrive for business, it’s easier than ever leverage the power of the cloud to connect with external users.

Before SharePoint 2013 was released, companies that used SharePoint for extranet solutions managed users in various ways, for example:

  • Adding external users to the existing corporate domain
  • Adding external users to a new domain with a trust or federation between the domains
  • Storing users in a database using a custom membership provider

These options got the job done, but there were concerns with how the external users’ accounts for access were managed.

Consider an instance where you want to share documents with a client or vendor. Your first step is to contact the person who can create the accounts and set the passwords. Next, you communicate instructions for how to gain access to the system to your external users. Imagine passwords typed incorrectly, misspelled usernames, or even the all-too-frequent forgotten password. The delay and effort required to share documents in this fashion can be so inconvenient that corporate users might resort to using Dropbox because it is simpler and faster.

Both SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business in Office 365 address and solve for these specific concerns. Assuming that your Office 365/SharePoint Administrator has enabled external sharing, all you need to do is click the “share” link, enter the external user’s email address, set the appropriate level of permissions, and optionally, create a message to accompany the invitation. An email message will guide the invited user to associate their email address with a Microsoft Live ID account. Once their email address has been linked to a Live ID account, they are able to access the SharePoint or OneDrive content shared with them. If they forget their username or password, they can reset this on their own with Microsoft’s Live ID services. Most importantly, you can focus on the content you’re collaborating on, rather than the effort required to share it.

Another option is to share documents with OneDrive for Business, the key difference being that you are in a Dropbox-like environment rather than an extranet. Unlike SharePoint, OneDrive has a native client application that can run in Windows and OSX, making OneDrive appear as a folder on your computer. Once the relevant folder has been shared with the appropriate audience, you can use the native OS file folder browser to manage files without having to constantly use the “share” option. For example, I set up a folder with the name of the customer I was working with, shared only that folder and stored all our collaborative documents in this location. What made OneDrive feel really slick as a collaborative tool was being able to email a link to the document instead of an attachment. In addition, the iOS application for OneDrive allows you to share existing files or folders without a need for the web interface. This is extremely helpful when you are on the go and away from your computer.

Office 365 and OneDrive have a significant number of available governance controls, explored in further detail in our post introducing the new OneDrive for Business. While Dropbox may be convenient, from a governance perspective, our IT group is unaware of what users share from personal accounts, and has almost no way to control or monitor it. With Office 365, you can control the devices that connect to SharePoint or OneDrive, limit access based on domains, perform remote device wipes, audit activity, apply security policies, retention policies, legal holds, and even apply data loss prevention policies.

Whether you need a full-blown extranet site for collaboration or more basic file sharing, Office 365 SharePoint and OneDrive for Business offer a simple way to share and collaborate securely with external users on content – without the complexities that have prevented adoption in the past.

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