5 expert tips to manage SharePoint Online

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Managing SharePoint successfully will guide how you equip and support your end-users. Microsoft MVP Drew Madelung (@dmadelung) covers best practices, tips, and tricks for SharePoint management. 

Managing SharePoint Online is not the same as managing SharePoint on-premises. SharePoint offers modern end-user and admin experiences along with a whole new cloud-focused toolkit to help us manage SharePoint Online environments of all shapes and sizes.  

SharePoint has always been a very adaptable collaboration solution so there’s never a “one size fits all” or “you must do this to be successful” scenario for managing SharePoint Online.

Whether you have a gigantic SharePoint Online environment already or are just getting started on the journey, these important tips should help you get organized more quickly and efficiently.

1. Move away from subsites

The age of subsites has passed. We’re in the modern age of a flat site collection architecture.

Every time you create a new modern SharePoint site or team in Teams, you’re also creating a SharePoint site collection.

In the past, if you wanted to bring content together, you would create subsites on those site collections which establishes a hierarchy of both content and permissions.

But the world of subsites is impossible to manage at scale. For example, you can’t convert a subsite to a team in Teams or change sharing controls just for that subsite.  

Modern SharePoint Online is built to be managed at the site collection level. And all administrative controls, reports, and future capabilities in modern SharePoint are built at the site collection level.

New Microsoft 365 tenants are starting with subsite creation off by default and when you disable subsite creation, it’s now fully turned off through the API too, so there is no getting around it.  

Modern SharePoint Online is built to be managed at the site collection level.

There is and will always be a need for connecting similar sites. And that’s why SharePoint hub sites were created.

SharePoint hub sites connect SharePoint site collections together to unify navigation, search, branding, and more.

SharePoint hub sites make it easier to: 

  1. Discover related content such as news and other site activities 
  2. Apply common navigation, branding, and site structure across associated sites 
  3. Search across all associated sites 

Moving away from subsites requires planning and re-organization.

A good place to start?

  • Identify broken inheritance. Look for all subsites that have broken inheritance within the tenant and migrate those to a new site collection.
  • Find good candidates for hub sites. Look for site collections that have many subsites with similar names. If there’s a relationship between the parent site and the corresponding subsites, then you can create a new hub site in SharePoint Online and migrate the parent site data to that site collection. Then create new site collections for all of the subsites, migrate the content to those site collections, and join those site collections to the newly created hub site. This will give you the proper modern information architecture in SharePoint Online.
  • Use a third-party tool. ShareGate can make your job a lot easier as you manage and reorganize your SharePoint content.

2. Use group expiration solutions to control sprawl

One of the biggest concerns SharePoint administrators have in their environments is sprawl.

Organizations have tried to control sprawl through complex request and provisioning processes that often result in poor user experience and technical debt.

Tip to combat sprawl:

Allow out-of-the-box provisioning but apply Microsoft 365 group expiration policies to help remove inactive groups and make things cleaner.

These group expiration policies apply to modern SharePoint sites, Teams, Yammer communities, and Outlook groups. When a group expires, the SharePoint site and other associated services are “soft-deleted” with it and can be recovered for up to 30 days. This means you don’t need to be scared about losing content immediately after it expires. A good starting point for group expiration is 6 months.  

What about existing SharePoint sites that aren’t connected to Microsoft 365 groups?

SharePoint sites that aren’t Microsoft 365 group-backed will not follow this expiration policy. To identify these sites, go to the modern SharePoint Online admin center on the Active sites page:

  1. Filter by templates that are not “Team site”
  2. Sort by “Last activity”
Identify Sites Not Group Backed

From there, you can export your list or just review it in the browser to identify the sites that haven’t had activity for 6 months and soft-delete them. It’s a good idea to set up a recurring event in your calendar to do this twice a year.

Identifying SharePoint sites that are not Microsoft 365 group-backed along with group expiration will help you limit sprawl in your environment while still giving end-users the freedom to create new resources as they see fit. 

3. Build site templates using out-of-the-box provisioning

Modern site templates are not the same as the old site templates that existed on-premises. Here are some key differences:

  • Modern site templates (formerly site designs) are only supported in SharePoint online and built completely differently on the back end.
  • Modern site templates are built as a configuration package that gets applied to a site after a site is created (compared to making a copy of a site and recreating a duplicate). By using this method, the back-end template (i.e. STS#0) will stay consistent while configuration items like lists, libraries, content types, columns, permissions, and more can be applied at any point in time.

There are some great ways to organize SharePoint and work with your organization to understand what’s required.  

The big advantage you get with modern site templates is that it empowers your users to leverage organizational templates that you create using out-of-the-box functionality compared to a custom provisioning process. This saves time, cost, and potential technical debt down the line.  

Digging deeper into the advantage of using modern site templates is to scope site templates to specific people in your organization. This allows you to give different departments different templates or just project managers the project management template.

Additionally, if you have something that you need to deploy to every site, you can set a site template on the default creation of every site. This can be helpful if you want to apply a global theme or add a custom solution like a custom analytics tracker.  

4. Put emphasis on security & compliance

SharePoint administrators are not normally involved in security and compliance configurations, but that changes in SharePoint Online.

The implementation of Microsoft Purview solutions such as sensitivity labels and retention labels are heavily integrated into SharePoint Online.

Modern team sites can have sensitivity labels applied to them to control things like sharing and privacy—they’re the best way to classify your sites.

Retention labels are applied to sites to allow users to retain content or declare files as records on the sites. More advanced retention label configurations with adaptive scopes take even more SharePoint expertise by requiring you to know about managed properties and a site property bag.

Along with Microsoft Purview, it’s important to understand the controls for who and how people are accessing SharePoint Online. This type of control is primarily done through Conditional Access. SharePoint administrators should have input as to that configuration.

Advanced SharePoint site-based sensitivity labels can even use authentication contexts to connect a specific site to a Conditional Access policy to do something like enforce multi-factor authentication (MFA) for all Highly Confidential sites at all times.  

Overall, SharePoint Online requires less care and feeding. Therefore, finding different areas to dive into more will give your organization a safer and more compliant location while you learn a new set of skills.  

How to measure user engagement: 3 methods for SharePoint analytics

5. Find what works best for you to stay up to date on what’s next

SharePoint Online is an evergreen cloud solution that SharePoint administrators don’t really have control over. You don’t get to choose when updates occur, so you can more easily control the rollout of solutions.

You need to shift from being a reactive administrator to a proactive one. You need to get in front of features that are rolling out by learning about them; when they’re going to be released and how they will impact your organization.  

The best places to monitor this are through the Microsoft 365 Message Center and the Microsoft tech community collection of blogs. A good organizational practice is to sync the message center to Planner and to have scheduled reviews with a group of product leaders, so everyone is aware of the upcoming changes and cross-solution impact.  

You need to get in front of features that are rolling out by learning about them; when they’re going to be released and how they will impact your organization.

There are also good non-Microsoft-based information through things like the Message Center show, local SharePoint user groups, and larger community events like SharePoint Saturdays, M365 days, CollabDays, etc.

Microsoft continues to invest heavily in the SharePoint modern experience as the key to facilitating distributed work and collaboration. There’s no one right way to keep up with things so it’s important to find out what works best for you and your organization. 

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