Getting our Customer Documents into the Cloud

Going paperless means having access to my documents, anywhere, at any time, on any device. That is a tall order when most of my documents are corporate documents – about 24GB of them.

The thing about corporate documents is that they aren’t really my documents. They are our documents.  They need to be available for all of the staff. Any time, any place, on any of their devices.

Going cloud personally is quite easy. Going cloud corporately is harder.

The good news is it’s possible to move your corporate environment to the cloud and the payoff is huge.

OneDrive vs. SharePoint

Personal Documents: OneDrive

As I mentioned, going cloud personally is really easy.

I have a OneDrive account that I can use to store my files. It is stored in the cloud and synchronized to my computer. I open my File Explorer window and all of my files are sitting in neat little folders, nice and tidy.

However, they are neat and tidy because they are accessible only by me. Nobody else is in there to mess things up, saving some spreadsheet with a cryptic name to the root of the folder.

The OneDrive is synchronized to my computer so it is really fast. I can search, open, edit, save and print files quickly. I am not talking bunny quick… it’s light speed.

Having that data in the cloud means that I can pull up a file on my phone, tablet, computer, home computer…anywhere. Having my personal files on OneDrive is a very nice way to work.

It becomes harder when I want the same convenience for our corporate shared documents.

Corporate Documents: SharePoint

To learn the best way to share our corporate documents, I asked our cloud team to develop a pilot project. The task: to help take all of our customer documents to the cloud.

Our customer documents, being all of our files, spreadsheets, project plans or any other files pertaining to our clients. As I mentioned: 24GB of data and growing.

The key consideration was that I didn’t want our customer data synchronized onto every computer in our office. It felt inefficient and risky, not to mention that it would create a huge tax on our internet bandwidth, as every file would be sync’d to every computer.

Looking at our options, we could host our customer documents in Office 365 in three ways.

  1. The first option is to use OneDrive. We could have everyone save customer files into their personal OneDrive and then share it with the rest of the team. This seemed ridiculous and against the very notion of having documents available to all staff at all times.
  2. The second option is to use GROUPS. We could create a customer GROUP in Office 365 and have a file repository for that GROUP (called “Customers”). We would add everyone in the office to the GROUP and then they would have access to all of the files. GROUPS are awesome, but the GROUP file system allows users to synchronize all of their files to their OneDrive. This brings about the problem of having every file saved everywhere. Not a perfect solution for a larger company.
  3. The third option is to use SharePoint. We are familiar with the technology, having deployed it into almost all of our clients for a variety of uses: Workplace Safety portals, Board of Directors portals, Intranets, HR Sites, etc. SharePoint allows the creation of file repositories, and it allows the administrator to turn off synchronization. This means that we wouldn’t have our customer data scattered all over our fleet of computers.

We decided to go with option number 3: Sharepoint.

Focusing on simple: create a file repository on our main CompuVision SharePoint site called “Customer Documents.”

Yes, very simple.

Getting the documents off the server in our office, and onto the SharePoint site was going to be a bit of a task.

We decided to use the move to the cloud as an opportunity to clean up our files, archive some old material, and get things organized.

Our approach was a 5 step process to get our client folders into the cloud:

  1. Start with the Master Client Folder Template that we had created a few days earlier as the foundation for the new folder structure. We created a set of folders that would be consistent across all clients. The top-level folder structure was quite simple: Account Management, Projects, Customer Offices, Hardware and Software, and Technical Operations.
  2. Migrate existing files and folders into the new folder structure. For large batches of really old and messy files, we simply created an archive folder and threw it all into there. We can always use the search function to find old files needed in the future.
  3. We turned on “sync” for the period of time that we needed to get the files uploaded into SharePoint. We designated two computers as the ones that would be used to sync the files from our server into the cloud.
  4. We would copy the cleaned-up customer folder to the SharePoint folder on the sync computer, and whooosh, up it would go. It was so satisfying to check our SharePoint site and see all of our customer documents appearing by the minute.
  5. Finally, once we had moved all of our clients, we disconnected the sync function.

Working with SharePoint Files

Now that our client documents were in the cloud, the question became: how do we best work with them?

Well, there are a few key things that we are learning.

Working with cloud documents is a little harder than simply opening files that are sitting on your personal hard drive. However, it’s not that much harder once you learn these few key things:

1.    Map SharePoint to your Office Applications

Typically when I start a new Word document or Spreadsheet, I immediately launch Word or Excel and go to work. Then at some point I decide to “save” the file, navigate to my hard drive and select a folder in which to save the file.

This is still possible when working with Office – especially the new Office 2016. I can add our CompuVision SharePoint to my SAVE AS file locations, and then quickly navigate to our Customer Documents folder. No different than saving on my hard drive, but the latency is there and it takes a couple of seconds to refresh the folders.

2.    Map a Drive to SharePoint

SharePoint sites allow you to open the file repository using File Explorer on your computer. You can actually permanently map the SharePoint repository as a “drive” on your computer. Then to open a file, you simply navigate to the folder and double-click the file open. Again, some latency as the whole process is happening over the cloud.

3.    Learn to Use your Browser

This is the easiest, and most convenient way to work with SharePoint files in Office 365.

The browser-based applications and file folders have become very powerful in the past year and it is now an option to work completely in the browser, never opening up a desktop version of Word, Excel, or PowerPoint.

We have a client who uses a Chromebook as his main laptop. His work is stored entirely in the cloud, and his applications are entirely web-based. This client is very productive and he is happy with the ease of use.

In fact, I am writing this Blog entry entirely in a browser using the web version of Microsoft Word.

I will “send” this document to our marketing department for editing and posting by simply sharing the original document with them.  No more emailing of documents and suffering through an endless loop of versions and edits.  One version of the truth. Shared.

The big change in my workflow is to start a new document by opening my browser rather than opening Microsoft Word. It takes some adjustment to be sure. It is nice knowing that I can work in the cloud either way.

The Challenges of Moving our Customer Documents

As much as I love the cloud, it is sometimes a challenge and it does require an adjustment to how I work.

Mass Migration to the Cloud

The biggest challenge with this project was the mass migration of documents to the cloud. The web interface for OneDrive and SharePoint allow you to drag and drop files into a folder, but it does not allow you to drag and drop folders and subfolders of information. This can be frustrating.

Opening a cloud folder in File Explorer on my desktop was possible, but not easy. Mapping a drive to the cloud was even harder. Once done it worked, but it was really slow uploading documents that way.

The fastest way to move a ton of documents to the cloud was to sync the Customer Documents folder, move the documents into that folder, and then remove syncing when done. It was fast, but I wouldn’t want to open that feature to everyone. It could spell disaster, or at least would lead to a bunch of missing files.

Moving to the Browser

The second challenge was starting to use the browser rather than File Explorer on my computer to find files and navigate to documents.  File Explorer is really fast. Browser-based stuff is much slower, with some latency as web pages are refreshed.

Because the system is based in the cloud, it often asks for my credentials, especially when I am signing in on a computer I don’t use often. That can get tiring, but once I am signed in, it works well.

The Payoff

However, the payoff of moving to the cloud is realized every day. I have access to our corporate files anywhere, any time, on any device. As do all of our staff. That makes us all more efficient and more effective.

Next week I will be working with PowerPoint, and seeing how to work paperless and cloud into my presentations.

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