SharePoint coffee talk: Should we still use folders

In Blog, Information Architecture by Janniek starren

Using folders to manage documents has been the accepted practice ever since the, well… the practice of organising documents, whether automated storage, management, control- or archiving solutions are being utilised or not.

Identifying and classifying documents has always played a vital role in the discovery of content both for work and pleasure.

Historically hard-copy documents were hand-written or drawn, went through a manual review / approve process and were stored in paper folders, in iron cabinets within brick and mortar walls.

The placement of the hand-written file in the right physical folder, in the right filing cabinet and in the correct storage room were all vital to the classification of that particular document.

Or walk into a library and you will find that a similar analogue system of filing and storing books is still used today.

To discover the books that you want you will need to learn then follow the system and accumulate all the books separately into one location in order for you to utilize them. If content is filed incorrectly you will not be able to retrieve it.

With the rise of computer systems and digitalized storage; digital folders that we find in file systems today can replace these physical folders.

Digitalization brings many benefits over the analogue method of storing documents; we won’t elaborate on that in this article.

With digital folder structures being used for so many years, people have been very accustomed to them, however there are some challenges with them:

  • Folders are a very static approach to content management.
    • It dictates a set path to store the documents in and as a result; burying the documents in a hierarchy.
    • Which immediately creates a challenge in managing version control as some documents may live in multiple folders and copies will be made; or all people who are involved with the set structure will just have to live with it.
  • A static folder structure assumes that everybody involved knows how to use the folder structure and everybody follows this structure religiously.
  • Due to the static nature of folders ‘slicing and dicing’ of content; i.e. Filtering, sorting and creating personal views is not done easily. Of course you can create a flat view, that will eliminate folder structure and shows the content of these folders, but considering you have a folder structure, there is probably a reason for it, which you now can’t utilize anymore in an user friendly manner.
  • The structure and levels of deepness can become extreme and path lengths may become an issue when trying to store documents.

Enter SharePoint! We now have the ability to use columns – otherwise known as metadata.

Metadata is in essence information about the document that you are storing and is associated with the document; basically the hierarchical static structure of the folders could be translated into metadata.

Utilising the benefits of metadata can be a better organising approach for several reasons:

  • People, who have access to the content, can ‘slice and dice’ i.e. Create their own view of the documents dynamically by sorting, filtering in any dimension. In essence, they have the ability to create their own folder structure in an ad-hoc and dynamic manner.
  • Metadata improves the discoverability. It surfaces documents rather than buries it.  For example, it will allow you to surface all documents that have a particular status, regardless of where it is stored.
  • Metadata enhances search capabilities. By associating metadata to documents the search of documents becomes better as well. Since SharePoint 2010 we have the ability to refine search results based upon metadata.

Folders 

Security
95%
Dynamic Structure
35%
Discovery
45%

Metadata 

Security
15%
Dynamic Structure
95%
Discovery
95%

So what does this all mean? Are folders just a legacy product of the “old days” and is metadata the way to go forward?

Not exactly. Folders still have their place in SharePoint, especially when it comes to securing documents and content. The disadvantage of metadata is that it is bound to a library that has certain permission for that library. Of course you can secure all the documents within that library individually but that might become a very arbitrary job and a lot of admin overhead in setting this up, maintaining and discovering who has access to what. This is particularly true in large libraries.

The down side of metadata is that people in general see it as an overhead in content entry. It is a time consuming step. Often change management is required to help people understand that the time spend on adding good metadata to documents will greatly help the discoverability of their content.

But can’t we solve this by adding metadata to folders? Wouldn’t that be great?!

Unfortunately SharePoint does not support metadata on folders themselves. But rejoice! Since SharePoint 2010 there is the ability to create Document Sets. This concept is basically folders on steroids. With Document Sets you can:

  • Share (propagate) metadata across documents.
  • Version the document set itself (in addition to the individual documents).
  • Initiate workflows for the whole document set.
  • Set permissions on the document set.
  • Create a welcome page for the document set.

More on Document Sets in the next article.