Folders and SharePoint 2013
Last month I attended a crash course on SharePoint basics. As we were setting up our library*, the instructor informed us that creating folders was not advantageous as they could interfere with the effectiveness of metadata assigned to the documents.
Initially I accepted this as a customization one has to make when setting up the SharePoint platform. As I thought more about this idea, I started to wonder if we still need folders now that so many options exist with metadata. Are folders the best option for organizing electronic information?
A folder is an intellectual construct that allows us to group like things together, or an aggregate of related things, so that we can find them easily later. This system worked in the physical world where few other options existed as finding aids to locate items. Creating systems to find and locate items could also be extremely time consuming in the physical world. However, in the digital world where we have more of everything to contend with, folders seem antiquated.
Metadata is King
I’ve heard this expression a number of times. Metadata is King, but actually I think it only deserves this exalted status when it is done properly. Things like hashtags often exemplify what I consider to be poorly executed metadata. When metadata is properly and consistently defined, it can be extremely effective for both searching and browsing depending on how it is set up and used.
When I worked with Content Server, folders were seen as advantageous because they could be prepopulated with metadata. Any document saved in the folder would automatically inherit the metadata. In a perfect world, because that’s the best place to do records management, the folders would be set up and prepopulated with about 50 - 80% of the metadata. Then the user only has to save the document to the right folder and fill in a minimal amount of information. Obvious advantages are that:
The document is described properly and can be searched for.
The user has virtually nothing to fill out.
And it seems to be kind of a win-win.
Seems to be…except for this idea with SharePoint that folders hinder the effects of the metadata. And with the Content Server method, the potential for documents to get buried in layers of folders exists. How can folders and metadata function in a way that is advantageous to us as users and information professionals?
Browsing vs. Searching
I am a browser. This means that I prefer to find content by clicking through hierarchical levels to find what I need. Searching means that people find content by running queries on keywords or metadata elements. Then the user must scroll through the list of results to find what s/he needs.
I’m so accustomed to browsing through folders that initially my brain couldn’t figure out how to browse without folders even though I experience it all the time. Folders are a convention that came from the paper world. This method was maintained in the electronic environment as a way to group things together, the same as it was supposed to be doing in the paper world, but folders can be problematic for some of the following reasons:
They lengthen the document name causing problems later.
Documents get buried in layers and layers of folders making them difficult to find.
Users stop putting things there because they can’t be bothered with all the clicking.
Security and access can be difficult to monitor and maintain.
So why do we still use them? If I could figure out a way to browse through all my documents with metadata on my laptop, I wouldn’t bother creating folders at all. The folder name could easily be a piece of metadata, which hopefully could be turned into a browseable facet.
If you’re still working in a shared network environment I can see the rationale for folders because options are somewhat limited. But if you’re in an ECM (or EDRMS or EIM system) I think properly defined metadata with browseable facets and established search queries could be just as effective while obviating the need to maintain an extra layer of stuff (i.e. folders) in the system.
Users can browse with facets. This is already a popular feature on a number of websites, like libraries, or as part of an app like iTunes. I browse through my music completely by metadata elements attached to the albums such as artist and genre.
I know in the end setting up folders and metadata is entirely dependent on the platform being used. And I can already hear my readers thinking, “users would never fill out that many metadata fields.” I say, let the users figure it out. A lot of people are happy to slap hashtags on posts and pictures. They would quickly see the benefit of filling in metadata in a professional capacity when they can’t find their stuff.
It’s a good exercise to consider the unique advantages the digital age offers us in organizing and managing information more effectively. Maybe if we started thinking about how to organize electronic information based on its properties, we could get away from replicating systems used in the paper world because clearly better options now exist.
*SharePoint name for the area containing documents.