I want to demystify the confusion and lead the SharePoint faithful away from an antiquated thinking around how to classify and categorize information. With almost all students and customers I work with, I always see the use of Folders in SharePoint and there is always some seemingly perfect explanation for why Folders must be used. It is a common struggle for teams within organizations to break the decades old habit of creating large and complex nesting structures of Folders to classify and categorize information. We are all experts at putting things into containers so that we can find things more quickly. While this seems like the correct way of thinking, we more often than not, quickly find that this complex structure has only added complexity to our ability to find things. In our kitchens, everything is in its proper container. Silverware is in drawers, pots and pans have their cabinet, and dishes and bowls even have their nook. But we are people, not computers. Computers don’t need containers to locate things. Computers use data.
Think of it this way. What if you wanted to quickly see everything in your kitchen that was a gift from your wedding anniversary? Because the gifts can range from dishes to gravy boats, you have no way of quickly finding these items without opening every cabinet and drawer and closet in the kitchen and doing a manual inspection. Or, what if you wanted to find anything of value that cost over $100. Again, start opening the cabinets and drawers and start making your assessment. One option, and this option is a preview of great things to come, might be to put a green post-it note on everything that was a gift from your in-laws. At least then, you could easily open all of your cabinets and quickly get a glance at the items that need “Thank You” notes. This same complexity in finding items stored in containers is also found when items are stored in complex folder structure. You must open every folder to look for what you are trying to find. And what if you have buried similar documents, like expense reports, across years of folder structure. Take this example. Let’s say you have a great folder structure, because after all there is no other way to classify and categorize information. You have a folder for each division within a company. In each of those folders you have a folder for each year. In those folders you have a folder for each quarter. In those folders you have a folder for each project you worked on within each quarter. And then finally within each project you have expense reports related to those projects. 100’s of folders and 100’s of expense report later, you have created what you think is the perfect system of classification… UNTIL! What if you need to see all Expense reports over $500 for the 4th quarter of every year for each division for a particular employee? Your first problem is that you have no way of knowing from your folder structure what the amount of the expense report was, or who submitted it. You would have to begin digging into folders for hours to open each expense report to find what you are looking for. So certainly from an archiving perspective, you may have a good system. This system, by the way, was the natural progression from the old file cabinet days of information storage. We just transferred it to computers. Many issues arise from this system of classification, both from a usability and an administrative standpoint. With computers, we can quickly find what we are looking for, but we need a different mechanism for the classification. And that mechanism is certainly NOT folders.
There are many benefits to leaving Folders behind. Now, I’m talking computers and systems here, not your home filing system. Filing paper documents in folders in a filing cabinet still works in your home office, just not in a complex system like SharePoint. One of the many benefits of moving to SharePoint for the storage and use of documents and other files, is the ability to produce metadata, or data about data, for those files. Think of it like putting similarly colored post-it notes across your files so you can easily find the documents that match a specific color. Metadata in SharePoint allow you to quickly find what you are looking for using the many mechanisms in SharePoint. The metadata can be used to sort,
group, filter, and arrange information to match a team’s needs regardless of where the data happens to be stored. With well-planned and implemented metadata, List Views will replace your need for Folder structures to arrange information. For example: Instead of creating folder for each State and then a Folder for each County in a State to arrange your documents, you would simply create two pieces of metadata. One titled “State” and one titled “County”. Then simply apply the state or county on each document as a piece of metadata. Now if you want to see documents for a particular state, you simply apply a filter in a List View, or you can sort based on state to see all similar states grouped together. List Views offer endless possibilities for arranging items according to metadata, rather than Folder structure where even documents themselves might need to appear in more than one folder for means of classification and categorization. Views allow for more functional and less rigid perspectives of your data.
With Views, it’s simple to change the way your data is classified, categorized, and displayed. Once a view is created, you simply select the view by clicking on it in the List or Library page or you can choose the view from a populated list of views. This makes it very simple to change the way you are seeing your data. A user with the appropriate permissions can create Public Views of data and if allowed users can create their own private Personal Views of data as well. The result of views is a more manageable, more intuitive, and more accessible configuration of your data. Users are no longer left wondering which folder they’re supposed to be looking for, and administrators are no longer stuck with the task of ensuring that items are in the right folder or moving items around when they are not. Or even worse, having the data appear in multiple folders because the data should be classified in more than one way.
While the metadata approach might seem obvious to information managers, administrators and even “database people”, the value is not always clear to end users. End users struggle with the shift from folder structure to metadata application. Users are typically focused on folders for information management and often shy away at having to learn a new technique. While the value can be shown to users, it’s important to consider this in user adoption planning and training.
Let the option of simply applying metadata on your documents sink in. There are about a ½ dozen other reasons why folders reduce SharePoint functionality. I will talk more about this in “Folders vs Metadata – Round 2”