Accounting firm revolutionizes collaboration with cloud file-sharing and social tools
Plante Moran prides itself on being technologically and operationally innovative. When its intranet and extranet needed a refresh, it used Microsoft 365 to rethink and revamp both environments with unique features, such as social networking. Since introducing its new private and public collaboration sites based on Microsoft SharePoint Online, OneDrive for Business, and Yammer, Plante Moran has doubled intranet usage, reduced the time it takes to find content and experts by 50 percent, and lowered collaboration costs by USD600,000 annually.
If your business is advising other businesses on how to run as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible, you make it a point to practice what you preach.
Plante Moran, one of the largest certified public accounting and business advisory firms in the United States, has always done just that, using its own business to model best operational and technological practices for clients. The Detroit, Michigan–based firm provides financial, human capital, operations improvement, strategic planning, technology selection, and wealth management services to companies across the United States. Its 2,500 accountants, management consultants, auditors, and other professionals work in 23 offices throughout Michigan; Ohio; Illinois; Monterrey, Mexico; Mumbai, India; and Shanghai, China.
Knitting this many people together across so many locations to share ideas, solve problems, and delight clients is no easy feat—but Plante Moran has consistently pioneered the use of technology to do all that and more. In 2007, it used Microsoft SharePoint Server 2007 to build an early intranet for document sharing among workers. Five years later, it used SharePoint Server 2010 to build an extranet where staff members and clients could collaborate.
By 2014, it was time to modernize both environments. “The firm embarked on an ambitious growth strategy and decided that technology would be a key enabler of that growth,” says Paul Blowers, Chief Information Officer at Plante Moran. “We had terabytes of content on both our intranet and extranet, but the on-premises technology was inflexible and aging, and our user interface screamed 2007. Mobile and remote access was too hard. We pride ourselves on, and have won awards for, being one of the country’s best places to work and for our long-standing reputation for delivering exceptional client service. Our digital strategy had to match and amplify this, and that started with a world-class digital collaboration environment uniquely built for what we do.”
Transform with a trusted cloud
Although the firm’s existing sites were based on SharePoint Server, Plante Moran looked at other leading file-sharing and collaboration environments, conducting in-depth analyses and pilot programs. It knew it wanted to switch to a cloud-based platform to provide scalability, security, speedy access to new features, and greater mobility for staff.
In the end, Plante Moran decided to stick with Microsoft and migrate both staff and client collaboration environments to , which includes Microsoft Office 365, Windows 10 Enterprise, and Microsoft Enterprise Mobility + Security.
“We felt that Office 365 provided the most complete suite of services and greater ease of use,” says Joni Propst, IT Director, Project and Portfolio Management at Plante Moran. “When we were making this decision in 2014, not many people were entrusting enterprise applications to the public cloud, so we knew that we needed the support of a trusted partner like Microsoft.”
Plante Moran used Microsoft FastTrack implementation services, along with the help of Rightpoint, a member of the Microsoft Partner Network, to design and implement both sites. “We had a vision for what we wanted our new intranet and extranet to look like, but we needed help realizing it,” says Amy Moore, Rapid Application Development Team Lead at Plante Moran. “Rightpoint did the bulk of the work of designing both environments, implementing our branding, and building the whole intranet experience around Yammer.”
KnowledgeShare: empower staff with mobile, social collaboration
Yammer is the enterprise social networking service in Office 365, and Plante Moran has made it, along with Microsoft SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business, the framework for its new intranet. Called KnowledgeShare, it contains firm-wide news and rich content from across the organization and makes it readily findable and usable by all 2,500 staff members.
Every staff member has a personalized KnowledgeShare home page, where they post news about their projects, search for and “like” content created by others, access line-of-business apps and client collaboration sites, and participate in social media–style conversations about topics of interest—from any device, with complete mobile freedom.
Inside KnowledgeShare, staff members access OneDrive for Business, where they can more securely store personal files in the cloud. They can share and access these files easily from anywhere, and the IT department can administer the sites centrally.
Plante Moran uses SharePoint Online to store team content inside KnowledgeShare. It has 70 team sites, organized by practice area, that contain more than 22,000 files, and Microsoft Delve locates and displays relevant colleagues and content.
Staff members use KnowledgeShare, with its image-rich interface and powerful search and personalization capabilities, to ease collaboration efforts. Say a staff member wants to find a colleague who speaks Mandarin or who is an expert in benefits consulting. She can either put the request in Yammer or use the KnowledgeShare search box. KnowledgeShare returns information in list or visual card formats—similar to Pinterest. “The visual interface makes it very easy to zero in on information and find what you’re looking for,” Moore says.
Since introducing KnowledgeShare in December 2015, Plante Moran has seen intranet usage double from 800 to 1,600 users per day. The firm has also reduced the time it takes to find content and experts by 50 percent and lowered intranet costs by USD600,000 annually, all by eliminating on-premises servers and software licensing.
“Our business today is global, which means that our staff needs 24/7 access to information,” Blowers says. “The fact that KnowledgeShare is highly secure and accessible from any mobile device, any time of the day or night, supports our business and our staff’s mobile lifestyles. Some staff are rarely in our office, and with OneDrive for Business and SharePoint Online, they access their files more easily.”
Collaboration Center: engage clients and transform services
Before starting work on KnowledgeShare, Plante Moran had begun to overhaul its client collaboration site, called Collaboration Center, using SharePoint Online. Even though Plante Moran had about 8,000 sites running in its SharePoint Server–based Collaboration Center, many clients had problems accessing the sites because of technology incompatibilities, such as browser support issues. Plante Moran eliminated all those problems by moving the sites to the cloud.
Consequently, Plante Moran has seen the number of client engagement sites in Collaboration Center skyrocket to 12,600. These sites cumulatively contain more than 4.2 million files. Each client has a site, and each Plante Moran project has its own subsidiary site within a client’s parent site.
“We get anywhere from 10 to 50 requests for new Collaboration Center sites every day,” Moore says. “Originally, it took several hours to create these sites using a semiautomated process, but we fully automated the process using the WebJobs feature in Microsoft Azure App Service. Today, we can set up a site within the hour.”
Staff and clients come together in Collaboration Center and use SharePoint Online features to share files, edit documents together in real time, and keep track of tasks. The portal provides an overview of engagement status, such as percentage of tasks complete, and other progress metrics.
Now that its millions of client-facing documents are in SharePoint Online, Plante Moran uses the rich portfolio of Office 365 cloud-based productivity services to enhance client collaboration. For example, Plante Moran has developed its first SharePoint Online app, which clients use to easily upload a Plante Moran document checklist that ensures they provide all the necessary documents needed for an engagement. The app not only contains the checklist but also provides an easy drag-and-drop feature for transferring the documents into Collaboration Center.
“Collaboration Center built on SharePoint Online is a competitive differentiator for us when we pitch new business,” Moore says. “Some of the larger national accounting firms have capabilities like these, but we’re far ahead of our midsize competitors. Clients are impressed with the fact that we have highly secure online file sharing and sophisticated tools for analyzing, organizing, and presenting information.”
Of course, the smart way that Plante Moran has used Office 365 to transform its own business serves as an example and encouragement to clients who want to do the same. The fact that security features such as legal hold, eDiscovery, and Data Loss Prevention are built into Office 365—and that Office 365 includes such a broad and rapidly expanding portfolio of productivity services—means that Plante Moran has access to just about everything it needs without needing to use third-party products.
Optimize operations with the cloud
In addition to realizing an annual savings of USD600,000 by moving KnowledgeShare and Collaboration Center to the cloud, Plante Moran has freed its IT staff from spending enormous amounts of time administering and securing on-premises collaboration environments.
“By offloading collaboration applications and infrastructure to Microsoft, our IT staff can spend more time creating cool new apps and features to help our staff and clients and simplifying team site provisioning,” Moore says. “We have more than 12,000 SharePoint Online sites, and we use Windows PowerShell scripts to update thousands of these sites at once with just a few lines of code.”
Plante Moran uses Microsoft Intune, part of Microsoft Enterprise Mobility + Security, to manage all its Office 365 services and to deploy apps to mobile devices. It uses the Intune Conditional Access feature to ensure that staff access Office 365 services only from authorized devices.
“Prior to using Intune, staff members could access only email on their smartphones,” Moore says. “Now they can also more securely access KnowledgeShare and Collaboration Center, putting assets and colleagues at their fingertips—anytime, anywhere, from any device. I’ve worked in technology for 17 years, and seeing the transformative capabilities that we now have with Office 365, Intune, and Azure is truly remarkable. We can now accelerate our business on a scalable, highly secure, cloud-based collaboration platform that really sets us apart from the competition.”
Collaboration Center built on SharePoint Online is a competitive differentiator for us when we pitch new business.