Using SharePoint Online Document Libraries as a Document Management System

Using SharePoint Online Document Libraries as a Document Management System

In the modern workplace we use multiple systems to accomplish business needs. Systems such as Human Resources Information System (HRIS), intranet and wiki sites follow us anywhere we go.

All these sites have some duplicate information that we have to maintain, and it is always hard to keep up with a current version of the document on each site.

Here’s a common scenario for many organizations. The Human Resources department manages company policies and posts them in the corporate Intranet as well as in HRIS while maintaining an original copy of the document in the local machine or shared drive for revisions.

The shared drive or local machine has two copies of the document, Microsoft Word version for editing and a PDF version for sharing by uploading to the Intranet and HRIS.

Also, there is a manual document distribution process where HR has to distribute a noneditable version of the document to Intranet and HRIS administrators for an upload every time when changes are made to a policy.

This is how it looks:

As you can see, there are four copies of one document exist in multiple places. Also, HR has to make sure that Intranet and HRIS have the same copy of the document uploaded.

In today’s blog post I am going to walk you through a solution for this complex and cumbersome set up using a SharePoint document library. This solution removes the need for HRIS and Intranet administrators to get involved in the process of publishing policies.

Ok, let’s get started.

First, you will need to create a SharePoint document library with the columns shown below. You can add more columns based on your business requirements. I’ve named the document library Corporate Policies for this demonstration.

There is one column that I specifically created for sharing purposes called Share URL. This column is just a plain text column which will store the sharing URL of the file. You will see later why would you need that column.

Next, we will need to turn on Content Approval for the document library by navigation to library Settings -> Versioning Settings

By enabling this feature, every file in the document library must be approved by Approver before anyone else can see changes in the file. This setting will solve the problem where HR has to maintain Working and Approved versions of the file. After turning on this feature, you will notice the Approval Status column appearing in the list view.

You do not have control over the Approval Status field.

Now that the document library is ready to host files, let’s configure permissions.

Since the Corporate Policies document library is very critical, we want to make sure that files are protected. To add extra protection, we are going to break permission inheritance from the site level. This action will help us to make sure that users who have access to edit documents on this site level don’t have access to edit files in the targeted library. We will also need to allow Policy Approvers to have access to approve files before they are visible for the entire organization.

Please follow this link to learn more about customizing SharePoint site permissions. If you want to understand SharePoint permission levels visit this link.

Let’s make those changes. Navigate to the Settings page of SharePoint library and click on Permissions for this document library.

Next, click on Stop Inheriting Permissions.

Now we can assign a specific SharePoint group to be an Approver for this document library. Start by creating either a SharePoint group or a security group, and add the users who will be approvers for this document library.

In the permissions page of the library settings click on Grant Permissions, search for the name of your approvers group, then Select a permission levelof Edit, and finally click Share.

Make sure that the rest of the users have Read Only permission to the library.

Now the Library is ready for a file upload. Let’s upload one file, and I will explain the purpose of the Share URL field that we created earlier.

If you are planning to test user’s permissions, I would recommend using two different computers since sometimes Microsoft Office gets confused which account you are logged in with.

Click Upload, select File and browse to the local machine to choose your document to upload.

After the file is uploaded we will need to complete file metadata. But before we do this, let’s get the shareable URL to the file. Select the file, click on the Share button and choose People in your organization with the link can edit (in the next step we will fix Edit part of this step).

In the next step, deselect Allow editing and click Apply.

In the previous two steps, we customized the shareable URL which will allow accessing your file in a Read-only mode.

If you don’t see sharing options or they look different, talk to your tenant administrator to check tenant level settings.

Now, we will need to copy the URL and save it in the file’s metadata for easy access.

This URL stays unchanged throughout the life cycle of the file. As we have the URL copied in the clipboard, let’s modify the metadata of the file that we just uploaded. Select the file, and on the right side of the screen modify metadata.

You will notice that Approval Status column indicates that file is Pendingapproval, which means that the file is not available for others to see.

When a file is newly uploaded, and Approval Status is Pending, the file is not visible for others. But if you already approved file once and then made changes which turns Approval Status to Pending, users will have access to the file but to the last approved version. For more details visit this link and learn about SharePoint content approval.

Let’s approve this file by clicking on ellipses (three dots)More and then Approve/Reject, which makes this file available via sharable URL or direct access to the library.

Great, we have prepared the workspace for our HR team. You will have to explain to your HR team that they can safely work on files in this library and only approved versions will be visible to employees. You will also have to explain that file turns to not approved (Pending) as soon as they make a change to a file and save. This will solve the problem where HR had to maintain two copies of the document.

Next, we will need to provide shareable URLs of the file to Intranet and HRIS sites administrators to post these policies. Intranet and HRIS administrators have to design their HTML pages once, and whenever HR makes modifications to the file and approve it, changes will reflect immediately (admins don’t have to redesign respective HTML pages or replace links). You can provide metadata of the file to Intranet and HRIS administrators by exporting the SharePoint library to Excel (it will export metadata only).

Click on Export to Excel button, which downloads a query file.

Once query file is opened, metadata will be exported to Excel. You can save that file and send to your Intranet and HRIS admins. You have to do it once as long as you don’t add new policies that need to be shared on respected sites.

As you can see that Share URL column exported to Excel. Intranet and HRIS administrators can use it to design their respective web pages.

For a quick demonstration, I built very simple HTML page to show how you can share policies outside of Sharepoint using the sharable URL. You can also create an email template, or any other web readable file to share files with your employees. Today almost any content management systems will allow you to design HTML pages very easy. It can even be your WordPress site to share with the larger audience.

Let’s run a demonstration on of how our new system works.

First I am going to show that whether I access the file from SharePoint or external webpage, I access the same file.

Next, let me demonstrate how a file turns to “not approved” version (Pending) if I make a change.

Since the latest changes are not approved yet, all employees will see only the approved version of the document via the SharePoint library or external webpage. Let me demonstrate that by logging in with two different accounts; one  HR Approver, and one regular user (John Doe).

And lastly, I am going to approve the document which automatically updates the link that is exposed to all employees.

I just demonstrated how easy it is to set up a system where you eliminate unnecessary and cumbersome work that your employees have to do almost daily. You can also enhance this process using Microsoft Flow by sending alerts and notifications. We will save it for a later blog post.