It’s always hard to explain the benefits of using a metadata based classification system instead of folders to users of SharePoint (although I have given it a try). The best way to approach this topic with users is to show an example that makes sense in their context.
I am working with an awesome engineering company and recently I had to do just that – show the advantages of using metadata to categorize content as opposed to folders on a file share. It can be a hard sell to many organization especially since people have been using folders for their entire working lives. However if you can articulate the advantages you will find that users will be willing to move to this approach and will see significant advantages in doing so.
As some of you know for each blog post that I write the good folks at CloudShare will be providing a VM that you can use to see everything in this article live on a SharePoint environment. I think that this will really add to the experience because you now have a place to try all this out in real life!
So the link to the CloudShare environment is here!
The site on the demo that contains the Project Document library that we discuss below is located at: http://intranet.contoso.com/sites/SPAHQ/PADoc
Remember that you need to get access to the Cloudshare environment and then see that link, its not publically accessible from the Internet
The team that we were working with works on a very large scale project that lasts for many years. As is common in many project driven environments their folder had a pre-defined hierarchy.
The top level corresponded to the tasks that the users were working on:
Underneath that the work for each task was broken down by year:
Underneath that we had the type of work performed for each task for that particular year:
Then we had the different audiences that this corresponded to:
And finally the documents will be stored in that location:
So looking at the file path above we know we are looking a communications from 2012 for the 022- Design task.
Basically the folder structure they employed was:
- First users will determine the task that they were working on
- Then they found the year that the artifact was being created
- Then they looked for the type of work
- Finally they determined the audience of the deliverable and started working in that folder
And here it is in a diagram!
Moving from folders to metadata
So how could we leverage SharePoint to classify items via metadata rather than via location (which is what you do with folders). It’s actually a huge misnomer out there that people aren’t applying metadata to document when using a file share. You are but you are applying metadata (or data about data) via location rather than choosing from a list of options. For instance if I am working on a document in the 022 – Design –> 2012 –> Communications->Client folder I know that I am working on a task relating to design in 2012 that is a type of communication for a client.
So the first thing we did is look at how the information is classified and it corresponds to 4 levels based on their folder structure:
- Project Task: All items relate to a project task
- Year: All items are specific to a year
- Type of Task: Each item is assigned to a type of task
- Audience: Each item is attributed to an audience
Now lets assume that instead of using all the other SharePoint goodies like multiple sites and document libraries we only wanted to create one library to house all of this content, how would we do that (we used multiple sites and libraries by the way but this is better for an example).
Well firstly we would create a column for each piece of information that we would store:
Now when users upload a document they simply choose a value from the 4 columns that we created (Project Task, Task Type, Audience and Year). Now does this take longer than uploading something to a file share? In the beginning probably but as uses become more accustomed then they find its easier to choose from 4 options rather than click around a file share for the correct location.
So when when a user uploads or creates a document instead of navigating to a file location they will now upload it to our Project Documents library and choose the appropriate options to fill out of Project Task, Year, Task Type and Audience:
Pretty simple stuff. However the question still remains:
Why the hell would I go through the pain of teaching my end users to use metadata instead of the folders they love? What advantages does using metadata to categorize content give that folders on file share wont?
Well that is what we are about to demonstrate
There are many approaches to metadata but lets look at this strictly from an end user perspective. What advantages would they gain by moving to this approach:
Slide and Dice Data
When storing items in folders its very difficult to actually view the content in any other way apart from the way its stored. There is no way to view the data differently from the structure that is used. So I can easily see all of the 022 Design stuff in 2012 that was part of communications to review boards because that’s the way the data is structured:
However that is pretty much it. So what if I wanted to view all of items we sent to clients regardless of task? Or all of the content from 2012 regardless of audience? There is no way I can do that.
But the huge advantage of using metadata is that I can view the information by whatever dimension I want! All I need to do is filter on any of the four columns to slice and dice the data. So if I wanted to just see all of the content for Graphics, regardless of year I can easily do that:
What about viewing all of the content for 2012 that we sent to clients:
Or any type of possible combination from our four fields! You see this is the huge advantage of metadata my friends, being able to separate how you view the data from how it is stored. That means you can view the data in whatever format you want, slice and dice it quickly into format and are able to do some reporting super easily that is impossible using folders.
Alternate Views of Data
If you are using metadata you should always be using views as well (article is on the way). However now that we have our 4 pieces of metadata we can create some views that presents our content in even more ways to our end users.
What if we want to see our content grouped by year:
What if we want to show all the content that was most modified by me with the most recently modified stuff on top?
Basically using metadata and views there is a whole host of ways that you can present information to users. This means that you can show them the data that makes them more effective and saves them time.
Tag an item with multiple values
So what happens if suddenly we realize that we are sending documents that belong in two audiences instead of just one. Since we are using folders a single document can only exist in one location so its impossible to say that this document belongs to multiple anything unless we have a copy in each folder:
But using metadata we can do this very easily because we can attach multiple pieces of metadata to a single piece of content. That means that yes a piece of content can be attributed to more than one audience, all we need to do is select the correct metadata:
So metadata provides another advantage in terms of flexibility. We can easily change or allow items to have multiples pieces of metadata to correspond to belonging to more than one thing.
For me this is the unsung joy of using metadata. In our folder approach above every time you needed a new Project Task, Audience, Year or Type of Task you would have to go to each folder and then add that option in:
So if I wanted to add a new option to my design folder not only would I have to add a new folder of 2013 but I would also need to now add all the folders to represent my options as well:
And more options below that..basically with more than a few folders this becomes madness.
But using metadata if I wanted to add another year then ALL I HAVE TO DO IS ADD ANOTHER OPTIONS WITHOUT CHANGING ANYTHING ELSE!
So basically all I would have to do is add the year 2013 to my year column:
And now we are ready to rock and roll when applying metadata:
The reason that this works is users do not need to navigate anywhere else, do anything else or change their behavior. All they do is select a new option which provides them with the flexibility that they need.
People like to create rogue folders in fileshares when they simply don’t know what they are doing. Instead of following the folder structure you get some smart person doing this:
The ever present danger of someone going in and creating folders to categorize content that makes sense to them ( “Hey its my stuff right?”) but doesn’t make sense in the scheme that you are trying to work with.
Utilizing metadata, and in particular choice options for your metadata value, you don’t give users that option. The only options they can choose is the options that you provide them which forces them, albeit nicely, to use the scheme that you have developed and keep a consistent structure.Why
So as you can see the benefits of using metadata can far outweigh the costs associated with moving people to that model. But if you are to communicate on the benefits show people examples specific to how they work and what they do. You will find that most users will see the advantages and be more likely to adopt this approach.
As always please leave a comment, whether “yes this is good” or “GTFO you have no idea what you are talking about.