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Collaborating Externally with Office 365

7 minute read
Bill Ryan avatar

Companies — from small operations to large enterprises — struggle with building and maintaining a well-defined and executed external collaboration strategy. But the ability to engage with customers, partners and other external parties sets businesses apart from the competition, and offers a strategic advantage.

Email is often used as the primary method for communicating externally, but is inefficient and cumbersome when sharing large documents or collaborating on complex projects. Other organizations turn to Dropbox or Google Drive for document sharing. And while this works in most cases, these can become large silos of information that are difficult to manage and utilize. The disjointed tools and processes that companies put in place for each department are, in most cases, undocumented and unsupported by IT.

Microsoft built Office 365 on the premise that internal collaboration is key to driving success in any organization, but took it one step further by enabling external focused capabilities across all of the tools. From the Office 2013 Suite to SharePoint, collaborating externally is part of the Office 365 DNA. Let’s take a look at how this works

A Breakdown of Office 365 Tools for External Collaboration

Microsoft has developed an integrated platform that allows businesses to collaborate using different tools for different work styles and needs. Let’s detail the external collaboration capabilities of each tool in the platform.

Office 2013

Microsoft continues to change and update the Office suite, promising tight integration between enterprise collaboration tools and the Office tools. Office 2013 (and the just released Office 2016) build sharing capabilities right into each tool in the suite.

When saving a document created in any of the tools a Share option will appear on the left navigation in the Back Panel. To get to the Back Panel click on File.


By clicking on File in a Word Document and selecting Share, you will see a number of options to share documents externally:

  • Invite people to view the document — this saves the document to OneDrive for Business which allows for external sharing
  • Email the document as an attachment
  • Save the document as a PDF for shared commenting
  • Present the document online — this opens a Skype for Business session where you can invite both internal and external colleagues to view the document (more on that later)
  • Send by Instant Message — attaches the document to a Skype for Business conversation with internal or external contacts
  • Post to a Blog — if you have an internal or external Blog, you can post the document directly for instant sharing

Clicking on the Save As option allows you to save the document to a SharePoint Site or a OneDrive location. If you’ve shared these locations externally then the document will be viewable by users with access.


The options described above apply to all Office Applications. While slight differences exist between some of the apps, the external sharing capability is tightly integrated into the entire Office 2013 suite.

OneDrive for Business

OneDrive for Business is the cloud based file storage tool built into the Office 365 platform. The advent of cloud based files storage is nothing new: tools like Dropbox and Google Drive had market share for years before Microsoft got into the file storage business. With the addition of OneDrive to the Office 365 suite, Microsoft integrated Office 2013 and SharePoint Online, making external document sharing an integral part of the platform.

The process of sharing a OneDrive folder with external users is pretty straightforward. Select a File or Folder and click on the ellipsis or the Sharing icon. You have two choices for sharing:

  • Invite People: Enter the person’s name you want to share the document with and select Can Edit or Can View
  • Get a Link: Send a link to external users. This helps when you want to share with multiple people. You have the option to share a view only or edit link



Microsoft continues to make progress integrating Yammer into the Office 365 Suite. Yammer always provided a way to engage external users in Yammer Groups, but this required creating an external network for external users to join.

The latest Yammer update changed this. Now it’s possible to invite external guests (Flexternal Users) to join internal Yammer conversations. This grants external users access only to internal Yammer conversations that have been approved by a Yammer Admin.

Keep the following in mind when working with external users and internal Yammer Groups:

Learning Opportunities

  • External users who are added to specific conversations will be able to contribute and add others users. However, they will not be able to add you to conversations in their network
  • External users cannot be invited to Public or Private Group as a whole, only to specific conversation threads. You will have to invite them to every conversation you want them to see
  • If you remove an external user from a thread, they no longer see the message in Yammer, but still can find the message within their email inbox
  • External users must have a corporate email address. Yammer will not allow users to be added using a Gmail, AOL or Yahoo email address

Your Yammer Admin must invite external contacts with email addresses outside of your domain (e.g. consultants, partners, customers). The guest email domains are not added to the list of authorized domains for your Yammer internal network as they are with the external network. As with internal users, Guest User names and profiles will remain blank until they accept their invitations and complete the Yammer registration. When a Guest User account has been deleted, their contributions to the network will remain after they have been removed.

SharePoint Online

SharePoint Online includes many sharing options that allow for collaboration with external customers, partners and contractors. Many organizations use this feature to collaborate with partner companies like Law Firms where there is a significant number of documents flowing back and forth between the organizations.

Sharing a SharePoint site

Microsoft added the “share” icon to SharePoint Sites with the public release of SharePoint 2013 in October 2012. With this, users could invite internal and external users to collaborate on the site. The concept effectively removed the need to deploy a separate SharePoint server environment for use as an extranet and saved organizations a great deal of money and time managing separate SharePoint platforms for internal and external use. SharePoint Online includes the same capability, which is the basis for external sharing across the Office 365 stack.

To share a site with external users, click the share button found in the top right corner of the site. Enter the email address directly inside the pop-up window and select the contribution level for the user.

The "Show options” tab will give the option to send the user an invitation message.


The invitation remains valid only for seven days. It expires after that time and you’ll have to send another invite.

The SharePoint Site email invitation looks similar to this:


Skype for Business

Skype for Business is one of the best ways to engage with your customers, partners and other external users. It gives different options to communicate — you can open a chat window, start a webinar, share a document or use the VOIP capabilities to have conference calls with external users. Your Office 365 Admin needs to trust the other organization’s domain in the Skype for Business section of the Admin Panel before this can happen. Both companies need to define the trust to allow your organizations to collaborate using the platform.


What the Future Holds

Microsoft will continue to expand the external sharing capability of the Office 365 platform to give organizations a deeper and more meaningful way to collaborate. Look for more streamlined sharing capabilities in the just released Office 2016 and the upcoming SharePoint 2016 (scheduled for 2016) and continued growth of the sharing capabilities in Office 365. The key to beating your competition in any marketplace will hinge on how well you engage with your customers and partners. Office 365 provides you with a comprehensive sharing capability to give you the competitive edge.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Peter Fuchs 

About the author

Bill Ryan

Bill Ryan is a Business Solutions Architect at Avanade, Inc. Bill is a seasoned technology professional with a passion for crafting business focused solutions with over 30 years of experience.

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