Six essential approaches for setting up a SharePoint Online extranet

Recently we explored the advantages of setting up an extranet, particularly in SharePoint Online. In a nutshell, an extranet is an exciting way to build on the maturity of your digital workplace and fully leverage your investment in Office 365.

An extranet drives efficiency through improving processes but also strengthens relationships with customers, suppliers and external partners. We highlighted that this happens through different use cases, including:

  • Project collaboration
  • Onboarding and alumni platforms
  • Training portals
  • Customer portals
  • Supplier portals
  • Procurement portals
  • Alliances and joint venture spaces
  • Brand portals
  • Freelancer and contactor extranet

And in the current climate where a lot of us are working from home, it makes complete sense to make use of extranets to help collaborate and communicate with suppliers via an extranet to help with visibility of information.

There are also other areas where extranets make sense, from industry or professional community spaces to simply sharing large files that are difficult to send through email. In short, extranets make good business sense.

Six essential approaches for deploying an extranet

Deploying an extranet is relatively straightforward and has got much easier in SharePoint Online. There are several things to consider from a business, technical and operational standpoint that will help you launch a sustainable and successful extranet programme. Here are six of the most important.

1. Cover your back with a usage policy

Nobody likes Terms & Conditions except perhaps lawyers, but when you launch an extranet, youre dealing with users who are external to your organisation and with whom you have no control and influence. Hopefully youll never have to refer to it, but if someone doesnt use the site properly it really helps to ensure you have appropriate usage policies in place to help iron out any issues or if you need to remove a user.

Its very likely your risk people will also want to have the right usage policy in place; ideally speak to them as early as possible when planning your extranet strategy.

2. Prioritise the obvious use cases that have value

If youre starting out with an extranet its usually best to start with something that is likely to work. We can guarantee there will be some obvious use cases; perhaps a less-than-ideal extranet solution is already in use and could be improved upon. Perhaps there is already a lot of emailing that takes place. Initially, work on a use case for an extranet that is a no-brainer and likely to be a success.

3. Remember the extranet must work for people inside your business

Driving adoption of an extranet with people from third-party organisations can be hard as you may not have direct access to these people. Externally facing people within your business are the ones who are likely to have contact with third parties, therefore they need to advocate for the use of your extranet to drive usage.

For that to happen you need  to ensure the extranet has as much value internally as it does for external people, otherwise it will fail. When a digital solution is designed to be presented externally, the prevailing mindset can be that the customer experience is more important than the employee experience, but with SharePoint Online extranets both boxes need to be ticked. The extranet must work for people inside your business, either driving efficiency, enabling a process or strengthening client relationships.

4. Establish who is responsible for adding and removing people

Operationally, one of the thorniest problems around extranets is adding and removing people. Often  the onboarding and offboarding is not clear and this can lead to risks. For example, if you have a number of people accessing the extranet from a third party organisation, it is not uncommon to have people who have actually left that third-party organisation still able to access the site because they havent been removed from the extranet.

Generally, the best solution is to make a specific person responsible at a third-party organisation responsible for informing you of starters and leavers, while you control the add and remove person process. Whatever you do, clarity is the best way to reduce risks. Note that if you use Azure B2B Services (see below!) you can circumvent many of these problems.

5. Keep tighter control over permissions using Azure B2B services

Microsoft have been working hard to make it much easier to set up SharePoint sites that can be shared across multiple organisations. If youre managing an extranet, using Azure B2B Services is the way to go as it gives your administrators the ability to manage access and security in a more structured way; you can implement security policies to give you more control but also manage permission which leverage the Active Directory of other organisations. Azure B2B Services also allows you to set which of your SharePoint sites cannot be shared externally.

For example, you can stipulate the trusted domains that users need to come from such as a particular partner organisation and then also block non-business addresses from Hotmail or Yahoo. You can also tap into another organisations AD and stipulate the people you want to give access to, giving you the tight, granular control that you need for extranet management.

This makes the starter and leaver process a whole lot easier because you can search for a user at a third party organisation and also be confident that a person has left they will automatically be blocked, as long as they are no longer active in that organisations directory. Moreover, using Azure B2B Services means users from third parties can authenticate using their existing AD credentials via Single Sign-On, removing a significant barrier to adoption.

6. Make sure your users understand what theyre sharing

With different Teams spaces and sites for internal sharing of information and external sharing of information potentially looking very similar, its important for your users to know where and with whom they are sharing information.

Where there is a lack of clarity there can be consequences; there is a risk that a sensitive or confidential internal document gets shared externally. Moreover, your users may also simply revert back to email for sharing information externally, if they dont have total confidence about who has access to an extranet facility and who will view that information.

Good luck with your extranets!

Like all digital channels and services, extranets need some management, governance and communications to make them effective,  but they can be extremely successful. Microsoft has also made it easier than ever to be able to set up a SharePoint extranet that can allow users from third parties to log-in via SSO and give admins the controls they need.

Good luck with your extranet programme. If you need some advice, then get in touch!

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