The Definition of Futility


Someone once said that the definition of futility is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  Okay, I know there are exceptions like going to Vegas and putting a coin in a slot, pulling the arm by the side of the machine (or is it pushing a button now) and expecting that maybe this time all the wheels will align and you will win a small fortune.  Of course, most of the time you lose or at best only win back a portion of what you already committed.  But other than games of chance or where random factors come into play to determine the outcome, doing the same thing over and over usually results in the same conclusion.

What’s my point? Many people think that just by implementing SharePoint to serve as their document repository for their company or department that somehow SharePoint will solve their problems with organizing and finding their documents.  You see they already spent years creating a complex hierarchy of folders within folders to store their documents in shared network drives.  They learned this paradigm well over the last several decades.  The problem is that while their hierarchy may make sense to them, at least at the time they created it, it does not make sense to other users who have to hunt through the labyrinth of folders to find a file today.  Often they too lose track of where files are store as well and end up storing the same file in several places.  The problem then is not only that the original file is lost, but that there are multiple copies of the file, each with its own set of revisions.  Now when someone needs to open a copy of the file to add something new, which one is right meaning which one has all of the revisions, if any?

Then someone brings SharePoint into the organization and promises that it will solve all their document storage concerns.  Great sighs of relief are heard throughout the halls of the organization for a solution is finally at hand.  However, no real paradigm change occurs.  The users immediately begin to recreate the same folder within folder nested mess they had in their network file share because that is all they know; only this time they create it within a SharePoint library.  Soon the complex storage structure begins to experience the same navigation and management issues the file share had and throughout the halls of the organization are heard mumblings of discontent and mutiny that SharePoint solved nothing.  They still cannot find anything they need.

First, before you start to tell me that all these poor souls need to do is to use Search, I need to point out one or two small things.  First, after adding thousands of documents, the success of Search depends on how well the user defines their search parameters.  Yes, those wizards of search who know how to pick out the special words that make a document unique often still can find the documents they want.  But too often the words most users select are common words shared by hundreds of documents leading to numerous returns that leave the searcher just as bewildered as before.  Second, out-of-box SharePoint only searches the contents of documents less than 16 MB.  Yes, SharePoint still indexes the document name, author and some other metadata for these large documents, but it does not crawl their contents.  Third, by default, the contents of PDFs and some other file types are not crawled at all.  Yes, there are ways to crawl the contents of documents larger than 16 MB as well as to crawl the contents of PDFs, but that is really not the point here because most users don’t even know of these limitations.  So they lose trust in Search and resort to the old tried-and-true method of navigating through the folder maze of libraries hunting down the elusive scent of the documents they seek.

So what should they do differently?  Is there a better way other than doing what they have always done before?  (Have you been wondering how I would get back to my opening comments?)

The first step is banish the evil empire of nested folders since we already know from file share experience that nested folders are not they way to go. Rather explore a new path in SharePoint when storing documents.  That path involves eliminating all or at least most of those folders creating a flatter structure for your library.  Then insert additional metadata columns in your library to classify, organize and filter the files within this simple structure that still lets users find documents easily.

Metadata sounds hard you might say and you don’t know how to use it.  Well, in fact you have already been using metadata all along because every document in a SharePoint library has both a title and a name, an original author and the name of the person to last modify the document, creation dates and last modified dates.  This additional data about your document is metadata.  But you don’t have to stop there.  You can create your own metadata elements such as document categories, project names, tasks, priority, etc. by adding columns to the library definition.  Each new column provides a way to further classify your document.

Here is the cool part.  Since you determine which columns to add to each of your SharePoint libraries, each library can have a different set of columns definitions, different metadata values, specific to the files stored in that library that you can add to and modify over time as your needs change.

Of course once you add new metadata columns, you must go back through each of the existing documents in the library to add appropriate values for that metadata column in each document.

So how does adding metadata improve the organization of your libraries?  Even if you only use a single view of your library, you can filter and sort on any of the metadata columns to select the files that may be of interest.  For example, you may select a project name from a project column and a file type from a type column along with an author’s name from the Created By column to reduce the number of documents displayed in the view from hundreds down to a mere handful.  But why stop there, if you find yourself always filtering by the same metadata values, simply create another view for the library.   Some document wizards even create a set of generic views that perform an initial filtering of the documents and then using the dropdowns available on column header names, further filter and sort the remaining potential documents.  Views can even incorporate group structures that let you expand and collapse a group of documents defined by one or more common elements.

Does that mean that folders have no purpose at all?  No.  They can serve to define custom permissions for different sets of documents.  Although I prefer to use separate libraries to control access permissions, you may still want to keep files related to a project together in a single library and use folders with unique permissions to protect important documents such as financial documents from general access.

Another purpose of folders may be to separate major categories of documents.  For example, a recent project for our Grants department who by the way is trying to eliminate most if not all paper, uses a single level of folders in which each grant has its own folder.  And while a Document Set may be a better approach to their needs, it was decided that the initial paradigm shift to use more metadata with fewer folders was a good start to a better document management in which documents must be shared between departments.

In conclusion, using SharePoint the same way you use a network file share will not result in any improvements in your employee’s productivity.  Reproducing a method from another platform in a new platform typically will not change anything other than cause people to ask why so much money was spent bringing in the new platform.  While doing things differently is no guarantee that you will experience improvements in productivity, I could probably guarantee that doing things the same way as before on a different platform will not make anyone happy in the long run.  So as a New Year’s resolution, you may want to consider the possibility of trying something different and thinking outside of the box.

Finally, this being the time of year let me close with Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, or Happy Holidays or whatever you celebrate this time of year.

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