As a Microsoft Partner of nearly 19 years, I have seen several shifts in the way small and medium sized businesses can utilize technology. In 1995 the use of email and websites were just beginning to catch on for many small businesses, and within a few short years became ubiquitous. Over the last few years we have witnessed another extraordinary shift in technology that can give smaller businesses a real edge. Yes, we are talking about “the cloud”, but I never did like that term. We have been using “the cloud” since we sent the first email. I prefer to talk about this shift in more pragmatic terms.
At a simplified level, we are seeing a shift from companies budgeting a significant capital expense with implementing on-premises solutions, toward a monthly operational expenses as they invest in hosting solutions through 3rd party providers. There are many advantages in doing so. You are able to utilize the same technologies accessible to the largest enterprises. You have scale and elasticity to immediately shift resources to meet your demands. You get to reap the reward of feature add-on’s and solution upgrades, without the headache of having to manage those upgrades internally. You have improved remote access and mobility. Finally, you have a fixed, predictable, recurring cost for these services that can be easily managed and tracked.
1. Exchange Online
Exchange Server is Microsoft’s email server product. I built my business in part by supporting on-premises Exchange Servers for my clients, which can be standalone or implemented as a component of Microsoft’s Small Business Server, which is no longer available. I regularly refer to Exchange as Office 365’s “low hanging fruit”. Businesses have and need email, and moving that function to a hosted provider is typically the most obvious technology to move to another provider. Over 90% of the folks we have helped implement Office 365 started with migrating email to Exchange Online.
The migration path to get all your email data from either an on premises Exchange Server or another hosted service to Office 365 can be a challenge, so unless you have internal IT staff who are very familiar with the offering I highly recommend you find and work with a cloud certified Microsoft Partner. Once your data is migrated, however, the experience should be extremely similar for staff who are used to using Microsoft Outlook to manage their email, calendars, and contacts. You may require upgrades to Windows and Outlook if you are on older versions, but core functionality is very similar and recognizable for most.
2. Lync Online
Microsoft used to have two products named Office Communicator and LiveMeeting. Those products were combined several years ago into a product called Lync. Lync provides the ability to collaborate with other people in real time. I have found that while few businesses, particularly the smaller ones, are extremely interested in Lync initially, they soon find themselves asking how they ever lived without it. It can truly change the culture of how your staff communicates and works with one another.
A great thing about this service is that it can simply be purchased and turned on. There is nothing to migrate and very little to configure. End users need some training on this new product, but they become highly effective with it quickly. At the core of Lync, your staff can see presence – whether or not someone else is available at that moment. You can see a presence indicator across the other components of Office 365, including Exchange and SharePoint. You can instantly communicate with people via chat, voice and video. You can share applications or your entire desktop. You can have voice or video conference calls. You can present to prospects or clients. This represents a real shift in the way your staff communicates.
SharePoint is at its core an intranet website to share files and collaborate. It is designed for business use with security and management in mind. If you are with a small business and have tried SharePoint in the past you may have come to the conclusion that it wasn’t for you. It was difficult to configure and use, and felt like an enterprise solution. The latest revision of SharePoint Online in Office 365 is far simpler to use. Out of the box, with some basic thought and planning around file structure and day to day use, it’s possible for a small company to have a rich and sophisticated platform from which to share, store, and secure company data and resources.
One of the most interesting features of SharePoint is called OneDrive for Business. This feature allows business users to synchronize data from SharePoint to their individual devices. A very important point to interject here is that there is a significant difference between this solution and the consumer solutions like DropBox, Google Drive, and OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive). Business class products like OneDrive for Business match those features, but add critical business functionality like managed security, backup, and data retention for the business. I should note here that DropBox also has a business solution with centralized management, so if you stick with DropBox instead of Office 365, just make sure your business uses that version, not the consumer version many employees may have installed.
With SharePoint and OneDrive for Business, the files belong to the business, not the individual. Permissions can be set much like you would on a file server, and if an employee is no longer with your company, the files don’t disappear with that individual. Microsoft very recently added OneDrive for Business as a standalone product as well, so you can utilize the OneDrive feature set without the full SharePoint implementation if you are only looking for file synchronization.
Microsoft acquired a company called Yammer not too long ago and has done an incredible job of integrating the platform with Office 365. It is difficult to succinctly describe what the platform provides, but think of it as social media for your business.
There are various ways to utilize Yammer in your business. I like to break down the ways I see the platform being used into two categories.
First, if your organization has more than about 20 employees you have probably come up with some kind of policy about what kind of email just doesn’t belong in the “all staff” distribution group. For instance if someone on your staff had an interesting personal item to share that is great to build connections, but often feels more like spam when many users send those kinds of messages to everyone’s email. Yammer is the place for shared social interaction, photos, links, etc. to live instead of email, and can be consumed how and when it makes sense. Also if you have more staff or are geographically separate from one another Yammer is an incredible way to build culture. Give each other kudos, get to know each other personally a bit more. It is a fun platform to be used in a myriad of social ways.
Second, there are extremely relevant business uses for the platform. You can create groups, perhaps by project or department, and have conversations, posts, etc. relevant to those groups. Those conversations live in Yammer. They can contain files, links, photos, comments, and more and they are searchable. Microsoft itself has done a wonderful job of creating Yammer groups for its partner and client base. Yammer is now the primary way I learn more about what’s coming from Microsoft. Yes, you picked up on that didn’t you? You can setup groups within Yammer and allow people outside your organization to interact. Subcontractors, clients, etc. can have a platform to interact in a controlled and secured fashion.
5. Office ProPlus
Everyone pretty well understands the traditional methods for purchasing Microsoft Office. You could buy the apps preinstalled on your computer, via retail from a store or online, or you could license them for your business through a partner like Arterian. With Office 365 you now have the ability to simply subscribe to Office ProPlus, which is the Office suite as a downloadable application on up to 5 devices per user account (yes, Office for Mac is included). There are two advantages to this subscription method. First, the cost is very low and there is no upfront cost to acquire the license. Second the applications update, essentially like an app on your mobile phone or tablet. You don’t need a disk or a license key. Other key application providers are shifting to a very similar model. Adobe, for instance, is doing the same with their suite of applications.
Many have heard me say that I’ve never seen a solution so easily sell itself. Office 365 provides such an enormous value at such a low monthly cost per user that the decision to shift to the solution makes sense for nearly all businesses. There are exceptions, but they are few. There are many various cloud vendors providing similar feature sets to each of the items I’ve discussed above, but to have the best of these services all on the same platform with an extremely financially secure company with top notch datacenters makes me infinitely more comfortable with the fact little of my data resides on-premises any longer.
Jamison West is the founder and CEO of Arterian, Inc. Arterian can be reached at 206-284-5927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.