Metadata: The Foundation of a SharePoint Enviornment

Metadata is the foundation of any well organized, thoroughly planned SharePoint environment. But with so many users accustomed to relying on folders in their established file sharing system shifting the mindset of an entire organization requires a consistent, comprehensive approach to ensure user adoption.
Whether you are deploying SharePoint for use as an intranet, customer portal, document management system or for team collaboration at some inevitable point you will have to debate the folder vs. metadata structure. SharePoint is a superior tool for customized information sharing, but to truly get the best user experience out of it, it is important that the right amount of time and effort is spent in building the foundation of SharePoint in an effort to manage the growth of information.

What is Metadata?

If you are at all familiar with the concept of metadata, than no doubt you have heard it defined as “the data about the data” or perhaps ” the information about data”. While true and seemingly simple enough, the concept can be a bit harder for most end users to grasp (specifically when it they discover it means they will no longer have the folders they have grown accustomed to using on a daily basis).

Within this framework, metadata refers to the additional information and context linked to your documents. In a SharePoint environment, it is predefined by your specific business needs, and becomes searchable, descriptive fields tagged to your data. For example, the document purpose, author, creation date, date of approval, and department responsible are just a few examples of metadata fields one could assign to a document.

Metadata is something we have all used in business applications, without giving it much thought. For example in your current folder structure, when you are nesting subfolders inside of one another you are assigning metadata via a static location. Alternatively, using metadata via predefined fields eliminates the numerous mouse clicks it takes to get to your intended location. Metadata fields will give movement to your documents, so data duplication or versioning issues are no longer common place within your organization.

Why Not Use Folders?

While still a suitable choice for working on individual documents on your own personal computer, the time may come when collaborating or accessing your documents remotely starts to become commonplace. This is when the many limitations of folders become apparent.

  • Usability. Whether in a SharePoint environment or in another file sharing structure, folders are generally only useful to the one person who created it. Sub-folders nested inside each other tend to hide things, and lead to document duplication, and issues with multiple document versions being created. Metadata is predetermined and approved by the organization as a whole, so the user experience across departments is much more efficient and intuitive.
  • URL Limitations. SharePoint assigns folders and sub-folder names to URLs. The URL length is limited, to ~250 characters, which can be quickly reached when nesting folders. Also anytime you move a file from one folder to another, that means you are changing the file URL, making it difficult for others to locate the file they once had access to.
  • Views/Groupings. A user is forced to view data based on how the original creator set up the folder structure. When multiple people access the folder structure they will have to view and think of the data with one set of eyes. If you are sharing information across departments, the data one wants to consume may vary from user to user, however folders don’t offer this kind of customization and flexibility. As a result folders are not a scalable solution.

What are the Benefits of Metadata?

When it comes to searching, sorting, filtering and categorizing– metadata enables far superior capabilities for use in a SharePoint environment. When properly put in place, the environment becomes an expandable, scalable, hierarchy of information that users can customize for how they need to digest and access your organization’s documents. Other benefits include:

  • Dynamic Views. The classification of your documents is simplified with metadata. Create dynamic views by customizing the settings to display and retrieve content that you determine to be relevant.
  • Search Results. The power of metadata is being able to look quickly at the content displayed to determine and select the document you need access to.  When metadata is configured properly across your documents, the search results will improve and lead to better user experience. With the right policies in place, longer term retention and archiving of your company’s information is simplified and manageable.
  • Consistency. Assigning metadata fields to your documents ensures that there is consistency in place organization wide. When standard naming conventions and illegal characters (&, !,%, #) have been addressed, your documents will be retrievable efficiently and without duplication. 

Things to Consider.

Metadata can grow and adapt as your business needs evolve. It more than improves your document management, it improves how your business grows and retains its business logic. The continuity and consistency it enforces organization wide opens the logic up for all to consume and is no longer kept with the one person who created the folder system. When metadata is used consistently across SharePoint sites, your document management solution becomes more robust and the access to your organization’s vital information is easier for all to find. Streamlining the collaborative process extends access to your business critical documents. Contact our Collaboration Team to see what document management system will best serve your organization’s needs.

(image via flickr)