20. March 2023 By Nina Gerke
Metadata or folders: that is the key question in document management
Moving documents from a drive to SharePoint seems simple enough. Just copy and paste the documents and folders, and they are all available to you again a short time later. That means users can continue to work as they normally would, right? I will explain why you should use metadata instead of folders in my blog post.
The IT world is broad in scope, and SharePoint Online, too, covers a wide range of applications. For this reason, this blog post is based on a highly specific scenario that I have frequently encountered, one in which a large number of documents needs to be managed at a SharePoint site. I am also working on the assumption that the SharePoint web interface is being used, not file tabs in Microsoft Teams channels. While they are practical in a project context, they are not the subject of this blog post.
Initial situation: a jungle of folders
What does a folder structure look like today? It was likely created many years ago and has continued to grow ever since. Someone was ever so kind and ambitious back then to organise folders and subfolders to meet his daily needs at work. More folders were to follow over the years. Special solutions were chosen for special cases. In the end, there were real gems like: ‘All previews are in Mr Vogel’s personal folder’. Every new employee had to learn this. And when Mr Vogel retired, his folder remained, even though his personal folders should have been deleted when he left the company – should have, but were not. That is because the previews can only be found there, as you just learned. A few people back them might have had the temerity to come out and say that the folder structure seemed illogical. To quickly put them in their place. they would have been told: ‘we’ve always done it this way’.
What are the disadvantages of this approach?
What exactly am I trying to say here? A folder structure is created based on how one person or department wants it done. It is either logical from the perspective of the accounting department (one folder per quarter, neatly divided into accounts payable and accounts receivable) or logical from the perspective of the design department (one folder per designer, neatly divided into the designed objects or items). Employees in the accounting department would not be able find their way around the designers’ folders intuitively, while members of the design team would struggle to understand the logic of their colleagues in accounting. Depending on which department the folders were created by according to their needs, the whole company would have to use this filing structure if worse comes to worse. This costs time and leads to frustration for anyone who is looking to find something following their own unique logic. Some documents are lost forever deep down in the folder structure, never to found again. This happens most commonly when a document is accidentally placed in the wrong folder. Along with that, new members of the team have to learn things that really make no sense. Like how you have to go to Mr Vogel’s folder to find the previews, as you have already seen.
Metadata and filtered views as a solution
There is an elegant solution to a difficult problem like this, and it is metadata. With it, a document can be told that it belongs to accounts receivable and to the year 2023 or that the design is from the designer named Marie and that it belongs to the category ‘wooden chairs’. Four metadata columns would be needed in this case. You can then filter and sort using these columns as you like. Now, suddenly, it is possible to view all the glass tables designed by Marie from 2019 at a glance. It would have been impossible to filter for documents within the folders in this way earlier. Or you can filter for documents created together by Marie and Steffen, which can be done by making multiple selections in a column. In the folder structure described above, this would have been impossible because only the folders ‘Marie’ and ‘Steffen’ existed there. The design and accounting departments can access the same documents thanks to the metadata. They can get the views they need simply by setting a few filters, and each employee can save these ‘favourite’ filters as their personal views. That means the view you need is only two clicks away, no matter how odd it may seem to other employees.
By the way, there are more things you can do with the views. If the accounting department does not want to be shown the designer’s name, then this metadata column can be hidden from the accounting view. There is no need for cluttered views containing 30 columns, of which you only need three. If we had been using folders, only one view would have been available to us. That’s right, just one. And it would not be fully logical for anyone except the person who set up the folder structure. Metadata, on the other hand, offers us an almost unlimited number of views for every conceivable use case.
There are other advantages to using metadata, too. A common mistake made when setting up a folder structure in SharePoint is to copy documents and paste them in several folders because you want to be able to find them at several locations. Which of them is now the latest version of the document? And how do we make sure that there are not two conflicting versions of a single document deep down in the subfolders? When I search for the document, how do I decide which of the returned documents is the right one? And which one do I need to work on in the end? Would it not be great if there was only one copy of every document?
Disadvantages of folders in SharePoint libraries
There are also strict technical limitations that are a good argument against having an expansive folder structure in SharePoint. There is a limit on how long the URL can be, which also includes all folder names as well as the file name. In some migration projects, this has caused considerable headaches.
Folders are, unfortunately, also a great way to create views that do not work. If you create a view in SharePoint that filters for a specific metadata and the metadata is only assigned to documents that are located in subfolders, then the view will simply remain empty. That is because the folder at the highest level does not contain the metadata; only the file inside it does. And if you use this approach, it will not be shown.
There is a function in SharePoint in which folders are not shown in the view even though they exist. However, experience has shown that such a ‘flat’ view no longer works if there are a large number of folders and files. So just when you need it most, the function returns an error. This means that there is no reliable solution for folderless views, which is another argument against using folders in SharePoint.
Changing the entire folder structure to add a new second hierarchical level, for example, is as much work in SharePoint as it is in a drive. Along with that, doing so would also change all the links to the documents. We therefore find ourselves in the well-known dilemma where we have an unwieldy folder structure that no one dares to touch. Introducing a new piece of metadata, on the other hand, only entails creating an additional column. This can be done quickly, and it has no drawbacks in terms of the links.
No need to be afraid of metadata
In some cases, users are hesitant to use metadata at the beginning. They say they do not know how to use it. But that is not really the case. We all use metadata filters all the time – and quite intuitively at that. Here are two examples: When our designer, Marie, wants to buy a trekking rucksack online, she sets filters like ‘rucksacks’, ‘capacity 20–40 litres’ and ‘with waste strap’. And our accountant, Edgar – who, by the way, is about to retire and, in his own words, is not that computer savvy – also sets filter with ease in the same online shop, in his case indicating that he is looking for hiking poles that are adjustable in length and made of aluminium or carbon, and that he would like to spend no more than €80. Marie and Edgar use the filters that the shop offers, all made possible thanks to metadata. That means we can quickly shoot down the argument that ‘I do not know how to use metadata’, no matter how IT savvy our target group may or may not be.
I am not saying that making the switch from folders to metadata will not require any adjustments. It will take users a certain amount of time to adjust and get used to it. Instead of clicking through all the folders and then placing the file in the one you want to, the process now works the other way round. The file is now uploaded, after which metadata is then added to it. The sooner the user takes the leap, the faster they will learn the new process. Once the necessary libraries and metadata have been created, there are many useful tools available in the automation toolbox that you can use to quickly set all the necessary metadata so that users can enjoy all the benefits in the shortest time possible. By the way, once they have made the switch, no one has ever wanted to go back to the drive.
Metadata is far superior to folders, and it is definitely the way of the future. If you only have a limited amount of time to complete a migration project, it may make sense to leave all files and folders as they are. However, I strongly recommend that you do not to leave it at that and instead gradually phase out folders.
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