20 Jun Finding the right SharePoint Solution: Folders vs. Metadata
Having worked with many clients over many versions of SharePoint over the years the attitude to SharePoint folders has evolved a lot.
In the beginning, there were file shares, with folder structures to categorise the content allowed to be found…
Let’s face it, we are all comfortable with SharePoint folders if we are managing content in a file share, or on our machine. If we set up the folder structure, then we fully understand it and know how it is intended to be used. The way we use the folder structure changes over time as the content changes, but that is fine because we are in control of the structure.
Issues start to creep in when the folder structure is used by a team of people, and the evolution of the structure and membership of the team changes. It is not uncommon for the original rationale of a folder structure to be forgotten through the churn of team members. This means that the structure will be evolved, but in a way that will not necessarily replace the original structure, just extend it. At this point the risk of not being able to find content or not knowing where to put said content now becomes a reality.
And of course, it has to be acknowledged that the effectiveness of a folder structure is very subjective. Having worked with one client who had a legal team of twelve, who were all carrying out identical roles, we examined how each of these team members were storing content, we found twelve completely different approaches to storing the same content.
Then came the dreaded metadata…
Selling the concept of metadata (data describing data) to end users was – and still is – one of the most difficult elements of user adoption with SharePoint. It’s not that it isn’t useful, nor that there aren’t many advantages that users can benefit from, it’s just that, for most, the folder structure is sufficient when it comes to metadata and this SharePoint flavour of metadata sounds awfully complicated.
Then there’s OneDrive…
Syncing a document library to make it available in Windows Explorer – that sounds like a great idea, but there is no folder structure, just metadata. This, in a way, makes the synced content unusable.
So, what are we to do with all of this?
Well, there is a solution that satisfies all requirements: use both! This may sound like having to make more work for ourselves, but in fact, it isn’t like that at all, and in many cases, it will increase the chances of the SharePoint solution being successful.
SharePoint does support folders, in fact, SharePoint supports them so well that they have particular capabilities so that we do make use of these in delivering solutions – because it is the best option:
- Default metadata – each folder can have metadata set as default meaning that documents created in the folders will automatically be tagged
- Security – each folder can have custom permissions set to allow specific users to have access
- Performance – folders can be an effective way of segmenting content to allow quicker access to the content
Meet Contoso, a building contractor using Office 365. They have several requirements:
- They have multiple clients
- Each of those clients has multiple projects
- Documents need to be stored at client and project level
- Contractual documents are only visible to sales and account managers
- It should be possible to search for all documents related to a client and/or all documents related to a project
- The content should be available to some employees when they are on-site and offline
A possible solution is to set up a document library for each client. This will allow OneDrive for Business to be used to sync the content offline. The document library will have the client name metadata defaulted, so that all content in the document library is tagged with each individual client name.
Within the document library, a folder will be created for each project. The project name metadata will be defaulted for each folder so that content added to the folder will be tagged with the project name and the client name from the library – meaning the folders will also be synced through OneDrive for Business so they can be accessed in a sensible manner through Windows Explorer.
A folder can be added within each project folder and set to not inherit in the permissions of the project folder so that the access can be restricted for specific users.
In this way, a folder structure is used to define the metadata to enhance the user experience, as the user is not required to tag content with the client and project names.
As always, there are some gotchas. This approach works well in a document management solution as it allows a sophisticated solution to be built using out-of-the-box capabilities.
Lists do not support the ability to set default values on folders.
The Pages library is created as part of the publishing feature. As such it has very particular capabilities (and constraints). Folders can be used and defaults can be set, however this is not the case for permissions, as the process of creating a new page requires contributor access at the root level of the library. See here for more information.
In the world of SharePoint, folders vs. metadata is a decision that is driven by the requirements of each specific solution, and the expectations of end users in relation to their experience of using the solution.
Neither option is always right or wrong and combining both folders and metadata within a solution produces results that are more flexible and more likely to be successful.
For more information about the SharePoint solutions we offer at CPS, contact us today. Our team can review your existing SharePoint system and provide advice and support.