Many organizations using SharePoint 2010 use folders in order to categorize and organize their content. Often a byproduct of a file based metaphor that users are very familiar with, the ability to group and categorize content is a necessity. In my mind the best approach would be to leverage metadata as much as possible, however many users still would like a familiar experience that folders afford them.
Document Sets were introduced in SharePoint 2010 and provide a broad range of capabilities to manage content. In addition to simply categorising content the they allow the grouping of related content into a single entity. The content that is contained within a Document Set can be treated as an atomic unit or a part of a larger set of documents that can be treated consistently.
Document Sets and Folders present a similar interface to users, however the functionality in Document Sets are specifically targeted to support business processes and the management of content as a single unit. In my experience organizations using Folders would be well served to start using Document Sets as they offer significant new capabilities.
In this article I want to compare and contrast some typically business uses cases for managing content. In each case I will compare how a traditional folder approach fairs with the new functionality offered by Document Sets. It is my hope that this serves as a guide that will enable you to make the right decision based on your particular business requirement or issue.
Additional Information on grouped content
A common request is the ability to provide additional information on a collection of documents. Utilizing folders this is commonly manifested by creating folders with a descriptive name, for instance RFP Proposal or Project Submissions, however what if more than a single piece of information is necessary such as the owner of the set content within a folder or which business process they relate to?
Document Sets provide a customizable Welcome Page that can contain additional Web Parts, metadata and other information that relates to the collection of content stored within. This Welcome Page is configurable per Document Set type defined so that different Document Set templates can have their own unique Welcome Page.
In addition to allowing Web Parts, the Welcome Page that can contain many different types of information. For instance ‘Welcome Page Columns’ expose the metadata relating to the set of content that resides within the set so that it can be easily seen.
The Welcome Page provides users with far more information than a folder name ever could. Users can simply navigate to a set and quickly ascertain not only the content stored within, but the context with which the content is associated with.
Ability to specific default metadata
The ability to assign default metadata automatically is a new feature in SharePoint 2010. Put simply this is the ability for SharePoint to automatically assign metadata to an item when it is created or uploaded to a document library. This is a great way to start attaching metadata to your content since once it is defined users do not have to do this process manually, it will happen automatically.
Using Folders we can now specify default metadata on a per folder basis using the new Column Default Value Settings configuration option available in the Document Library Settings:
With Document Sets you can achieve the same result but in a slightly different way. Firstly you define a piece of metadata as a Shared Column and then set the default value on the Document Set. From then on all content that is uploaded or created in the Document Set will inherit the Shared Column values:
Shared Columns in Document Sets allow the ability to both share and synchronize metadata across a collection of content. So both are achievable utilizing Folders or Document Sets, however the implementation differs slightly.
Synchronization of Metadata
The ability to synchronize metadata allows users to change metadata on multiple items at once within a Document Set. Frequently users will want to do a bulk change of metadata stored within a folder. The most common way to achieve this using Folders is utilizing the Datasheet View for document libraries which allow users to bulk change properties quickly. However this can be error prone and has limitations such as the inability to change Managed Metadata fields (see more limitations here)
In contrast Document Sets allow the ability to configure a column as a Shared Column. Shared Columns then share metadata across the entire Document Set. By changing the column value at the Document Set all content contained within the set will be updated with the new value without the user manually having to change each individual document. Another advantage is that all columns types are supported, so users can also easily change Managed Metadata columns for all content as well.
However this is a major downfall with Document Sets in that they can't use datasheet view which can really be an issue. More limitations can be found here.
Versioning of Individual Documents
The versioning of individual documents brings joy and happiness to many an end user. This is of course available using versioning on documents contained within Folders.
Fortunately Document Sets also allow the versioning of individual content in exactly the same way, providing a familiar interface to users.
Versioning of all content
Continuing on from versioning individual documents, another frequent requirement is the ability to capture a version of ALL documents within a container. The vast majority of business processes consist of more than one document or artifact that goes through a process. Imagine a RFP submission that consisted of multiple documents for example. Although it is very powerful to be able to version individual documents it is even more relevant if we can take a version of all documents that make up the submission. This allows users to say ‘At this point in time all the content within the submission was at this stage’.
With Folders this is difficult at best. Unless a user manually writes down and stores a version of all the contents within the folder then this is virtually impossible.
However Document Sets fully support the versioning of all content within a set. Users can easily take a snapshot of all the documents with some additional options such as only capturing the latest major version or any version of a document that is contained:
If you look at the version history for the Document Set you will be able to see all of the properties and contents stored within:
For me this is one of the most compelling reasons to use Document Sets. The ability to easily create a version of multiple documents can be leveraged in nearly every business process or task.
Running workflows on multiple items with SharePoint Designer
Running workflows on multiple items is another commonly asked for requirement in many organizations. The ability to send multiple items through an approval process is something that commonly appears on a list of requirements when organizations are implementing SharePoint.
With folders there is really no other option than to manually start an Approval process on each item. Unfortunately even though you can now select multiple items to perform actions on within Lists and Libraries you cannot do this with workflows. If you have ten documents that you need to send through an Approval process then it’s a rather laborious process. Of course you can create custom workflows in .NET code to solve this issue and this is a good example of where the new Site Workflow type may be used. However if we are limiting ourselves to out of the box or SharePoint Designer declarative workflows then we are out of luck.
With Document Sets we have new Workflow Actions available in SharePoint Designer 2010. This means that we can indeed send an entire Document Set through an Approval Process.Since a Document Set includes multiple documents we are in effect sending multiple items through an approval process as we can see below:
There are also other actions that we can perform on Document Sets with SharePoint Designer such as capturing a version or sending a Document Set to a repository.
Provisioning of Default Content
The ability to create a template and have this reused when a user is creating a document is thing that can be easily configured in SharePoint. The power of Content Types within the platform can be harnessed very effectively to create these template and deploy them across multiple sites. However often we don’t require just a single document to be created, but rather a collection of documents to be provisioned. For example consider a project submission pack or a RFP Response that consists of multiple documents.
In an ideal world a user would be able to create collection of documents quickly and easily. If using the folder approach you can only create single documents, one at a time. So if a user wanted to create a project submission pack then they would create the folder that would house these documents, and then create each individual Content Type one at a time. This is obviously a cumbersome approach.
In contrast Document Sets allow us to provision default content when the Document Set is created. So if we create a RFP Response Document Set we can choose to have default content created when a user creates the Document Set:
Now when a user creates a Document Set, not only is the set created but all the default content is provisioned as well!
This is another area where the Document Set excels! Imagine the time savings across the organization if users can provision sets of content so quickly and easily.
Records Management Portability
It has been well documented about how far the new Records Management toolset in SharePoint 2010 has progressed. With organizations utilizing the platform for Records Management the question is often raised if users can easily declare multiple items as records.
If utilizing a folder approach then users can now select multiple items and declare them as records. However the caveat is that this only applies to if utilizing the In-Place records management features. If your Records Management implementation relies on sending items to the records center, utilizing a Send To Location, then users will still need to send each item individually.
Once again Document Sets provide an elegant solution to this problem. You can now send a Document Set to a Records Centre in one easy click. All of the content contained within the set will be sent to the Records Centre. You can now also take advantage of the Content Organizer feature in SharePoint 2010 to route your Document Sets according to your file plan.
As you can see there are significant time savings that can be had when using Document Sets as opposed to folders. Although the familiarity of folders cannot be questioned, Document Sets provide a similar experience with far more capabilities. Obviously the question has to be raised if folders should be used at all in SharePoint 2010 or should Document Sets be used as the default way to group content. I think that it would take a brave person to say that folders should not ever be used, but in my opinion a combination of well-defined metadata, with the added functionality that Document Sets offer, provide significant capabilities over a folder only model.