What the heck is SharePoint and how do I use it?!

I get asked this question more than almost any other.

Trying to pull back on the geek-speak: Microsoft SharePoint is a suite of web-based tools and services that dovetail nicely with MS Office applications like Outlook, Excel, Word, etc. It’s used, primarily, as a content/document management solution but is also used for collaboration, communication, even externally facing web sites.

Like many products from Microsoft, SharePoint is available in a variety of tiers (like Foundation, Standard, Enterprise, etc.) each of which come with a variety of capabilities and features.

How your organization uses SharePoint is entirely up to them.

Like making pizza- there is no single “right way.” But there are plenty of wrong ways. (Pineapple? Really? Please.)

Let’s start with the core unit of SharePoint functionality- The “List”

A “list” is just that- a list. It’s a way to store and track items you have some level of interest in. Like a grocery list. You might have “Eggs, milk, butter, bread, orange juice.” So, at first, in SharePoint, your list might look like this…

A basic SharePoint list.
A basic SharePoint list.

That’s fine. You intuitively know certain things about the items in this list that you are tracking in your head. But, if you sent someone else to the store to pick up these items you might not get exactly what you want. Eggs- What kind? Brown, white, speckled? One dozen? Two dozen? Milk- Whole? 2%? One gallon? A Half-gallon? And, as your list grows, you are also categorizing items in your head. i.e. Meat, vegetables, dairy.

See where I’m going with this? All this extra information about the items on your list is what SharePoint calls “metadata” or “data about data.” So let’s add this metadata to our basic grocery list. (Exactly how to add metadata is a topic for another post.)

A SharePoint list with metadata
A SharePoint list with metadata

Now, you can print this out and send someone to the store with it and you’ve got a reasonably good chance of getting what you actually want.

But this list is kind of erratic. If they went in order of the display, they’d spend all afternoon popping back and forth across the store. You could have taken the time to enter the items in proper order- but what if you think of something later that you need to add and its group of items is at the top? You could also rely on the shopper to organize the list in their head, but that seems kind of inconsiderate.

SharePoint has given you a way of storing information- The List. Now you just need a way of displaying that information in a way that’s more useful to a particular person. And SharePoint gives you that too. It’s called a “view.” Views are just ways of organizing and displaying data.

For our grocery example, we’d like to organize the display of items in our list regardless of how they were entered. There are a few ways to do this- you can sort on columns or create views.

To sort on the columns- just pick one of the headings like Title, Style, Quantity, or Category and click on it. For example, if I click on “Style” my list now displays like this…

Sorting a SharePoint list on a column
Sorting a SharePoint list on a column

Now the list is sorted, alphabetically, by the values in the Style column. If I click “Category” it will sort on that column…

Sorting a SharePoint list on another column
Sorting a SharePoint list on another column

See? Now that view is a little easier to understand for your shopper.

Power TIP:  You can email a link to a particular display by copying the url in the address bar. Then paste it into an email, chat window, or document. Then they can print it if they wish.

You can even filter on certain columns. If I hover over the word “Category” and click that little black triangle, I get a display of filtering options…

Filtering a SharePoint list on a column
Filtering a SharePoint list on a column

If I pick one, or more, my display now only shows the items in those categories. To make the filter go away, just click that little funnel icon next to “Category” and then “Clear filters from Category.”

Clearing a filter on a SharePoint list on a column
Clearing a filter on a SharePoint list on a column

Note: Not all field types are sort-able or filterable. My “Notes” field, being a multi-line text field is one such field.

The trouble with sorting on columns is that it’s not permanent. Once you navigate away from this page, that sorting and filtering goes away. That’s where SharePoint Views come in handy. They are a more permanent way of creating sorted and filtered displays.

A view where items are grouped according to Category would be nice, so let’s do that. (Exactly how to views is also a topic for another post.)

A view on a SharePoint list
A view on a SharePoint list

Much clearer. Now, not only do I have a more organized display of my list items, but I’ve got a count of items in each category.

Let’s say, hypothetically, I’ve got two shoppers on the case and each one is assigned to get items in particular categories. I could create views for them. Shopper “A” is getting Meat & Deli items and Shopper “B” is getting Produce & Dairy. And they will determine who will get the Misc items.

So, three views: Meet & Deli…

A filtered view on a SharePoint list
A filtered view on a SharePoint list

Produce & Dairy…

Another filtered view on a SharePoint list
Another filtered view on a SharePoint list

…and Misc.

Another filtered view on a SharePoint list
Another filtered view on a SharePoint list

Power TIP: You can email a link to a particular view, the same way you could with a link to a display- by copying the url in the address bar. Then paste it into an email, chat window, or document.

You can navigate between views by clicking the view names below the “new item” link or by clicking the ellipses to the right of the view names and selecting the view you want. (You can also create and modify views this way, but again, a topic for another post.)

Navigating SharePoint views
Navigating SharePoint views

This grocery list example may seem overly simplistic, but I hope it has begun to clear some of the fog around what SharePoint’s core functionality is, what it does, and how you can use it.

For example- Instead of “groceries” think “employees.” Instead of “categories” think “departments,” “positions,” “titles,” and “regions.” You’ll quickly start to see how this can be used at work, and why so many organizations do.

I hope this has helped!

CG

[If pineapple pizza is your thing… well, sorry. But I found this kinda funny.]

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