It Is Not About The Metadata!


A while back I was at a meeting in which the topic of discussion was how hard it was to find any documents on the SharePoint portal.  The site collection in question was created four years ago and while the initial structure of the site made sense aligning itself along department and function boundaries, things have changed since then.  More importantly, many of the original site owners have moved on and new site owners were never selected.  That was problem #1.

Users of the site were encouraged to place documents on the site.  However, they treated the site much like they would a network share dumping everything on the site in a series of nested folders within folders within folders within folders…  Well, you get the idea.  The site nesting was not much better.  As a result, getting to any file was a complex series of branching that could easily confuse the person looking for a file.

Problem #3 is related to problem #1.  Obsolete files and information from a year, two years, and even three years ago still sits on the site and has not been updated.  I say that this problem is related to problem #1 because when a site does not have an active owner, no one looks at the content of the site with a critical eye as to what should be there and whether the information has been kept up to date.

None of these problems can be solved by magic.  If only that were true.  Switch to a new software product will never fix a problem if the users continue to try to work and do things like they always did before.  New systems give you an opportunity to change the way you work.  Hopefully this leads to better systems.  But trying to force new systems to work the same as old systems and then claim that the new system is no better than the old system is just plain silly.

So why not just use the SharePoint search functionality to find the files?  Great idea if you craft your search based on moderately unique words or phrases found within the document, something I do all of the time.  The problem is that it takes more creativity that perhaps an equivalent search using Google.  But that is not a fair comparison either because Google constantly performs analytics over millions of searches to determine which searches are successful and then they rank return results based on that information among other techniques.

Unfortunately, doing the same thing in SharePoint requires additional work that many smaller organizations do not have time or resources to do.  So the solution I offered was to restructure the sites and folders to flatten the structure considerable while at the same time adding metadata to libraries to classify the documents.  Yes, it would take time to determine what that metadata should be.  But once defined, we could add that information back as managed metadata to help classify future documents.  After all, search can also take advantage of metadata to help narrow your search.

But the answer I got was that metadata was ‘too hard’ for the system’s users to figure out and manage.  Then the person who said that it was too hard started to pitch a different system in which people could store the data that would make it easier to find individual documents.  After moving most of the documents out of SharePoint into their new system, they would consider restructuring what was left in SharePoint.

The whole argument of ‘too hard’ struck me as odd coming from a professional. I remember a time many years ago when I was told by a secretary that using a word processor was ‘too hard’ compared to using her trusty typewriter.  Fortunately, the department head at the time believed in the future of PCs and convinced the secretary to just try it.  Of course, the test was rigged a bit.  The department head asked the secretary to type a three page letter that needed to get out and then proceeded after each time the secretary finished to edit the resulting letter to add, delete or otherwise modify the letter.  Using a manual typewriter meant retyping the entire letter.  Next he took a progress report to be sent to management and asked the same secretary to use the PC to type the report and then print a copy for his review.  Again he mercilessly modified the report.  But this time, the changes could be made quickly by just entering the changes, not retyping the entire report.  After a ‘few more’ documents were created both ways, the secretary actually came to the manager asking to have the typewriter removed so she would have room on her desktop for the computer and keyboard.

Another example of ‘too hard’ is when we tell children that math and science is ‘too hard’.  If enough people tell children this lie including peers and adults, they begin to believe it and stop even trying.  In fact, they begin to use the ‘excuse’ that it is ‘too hard’ when they don’t do well on homework and tests.  Since many adults believe math is too hard, they accept the excuse and give the child a pass on their poor grades.

I recently was having a conversation with another professional about my same age and when I told him what I do for a living, his response was, “Isn’t that too hard for a person our age?”  Really?  If it were socially acceptable, I would have slapped some sense into him right then and there.

But saying that metadata is too hard is not what really ticked me off.  A few days after this initial discussion about what to do to better organize the files in this SharePoint site, the person who told me that metadata was ‘too hard’ pitched their concept to management using this other non-SharePoint tool that would use ‘metadata’ to classify the documents to make them easy to find.

Stunned! It is really not about the metadata is it?  It is really not about how hard or how easy it is for users to learn a new system is it?  It is really not about the best use of corporate resources and using what one has to the best of its abilities is it?  It is really just about pushing a personal agenda.

C’ya next time.

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One comment on “It Is Not About The Metadata!

  1. I like your comment about pushing the agenda! I am learning all about that constraint in this great class on Innovation by David Owen on coursera.com. I know you like to listen to Tedtalks and webcasts: you might enjoy this class too. Thank you for all your great explanations and insights. Your blog is a great resource for me!

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