How SharePoint libraries free user dependence on IT

Centralizing content in SharePoint libraries and using good practices for tagging with metadata can help free users from dependence on IT.

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SharePoint libraries in the 2013 platform free users from dependence on IT while urging them toward true collaboration. Average users are more empowered, but that empowerment can amplify the effects of mistakes and diminish the usefulness of the platform's new features.

Folder hierarchy and SharePoint sprawl

If you're trying to get your information house in order, it's useless to transport your company's existing folder hierarchy into SharePoint libraries -- that just amplifies SharePoint's sprawl and disorganization. It's self-defeating to move file shares into SharePoint libraries wholesale, folder hierarchy and all.

Few things are more destructive to SharePoint's structure. Why? First, a folder hierarchy encodes metadata (how the different folders relate to one another) in a logical arrangement that is static and often opaque. Second, nested folders wreak havoc on SharePoint's efficiency vis-à-vis SQL Server. Furthermore, folders add length to the URLs specifying the ultimate residence of your data -- those URLs konk out at around 260 characters.

SharePoint libraries are designed to give users one-stop shopping for file objects in a single library through metadata, with different library views driven by metadata that makes organizational sense for the user. A single SharePoint library becomes many virtual folders; system performance is augmented rather than compromised, and changes in the structure of the data are easily implemented. Tagging library items correctly and consistently requires considerable discipline.

With SharePoint 2013, tagging becomes easier and more important. The Term Store, where metadata is defined, is now enhanced, and tagging offers greater benefits: the Term Store enables the user to base navigation on types of information, which is a huge savings in time and alleviates aggravation for those who use the information. The downside is that if you’re not familiar with the Term Store, information can be more difficult to discover.

If you must use folders in libraries, keep the folder hierarchies as flat as possible.

Choices or lookups?

SharePoint 2013 offers several means by which list items can be tagged: choice columns, list lookups and the enterprise metadata taxonomy. From a best practices standpoint, it's important to understand how these items differ. The differences have performance consequences.

  • A choice column usually has a limited number of selections, and is preferred when the tagging options are limited and unlikely to change much.
  • A list lookup is better when lots of data is involved and more flexibility is required. This is the most efficient choice when the items are subject to informal change (hard to do with the metadata taxonomy option that follows).
  • The enterprise metadata taxonomy, the blueprint for meaning that is shared throughout the organization, is the way to go when the tagging choices that define an item are hierarchical in nature. It's also the best choice when the options for tagging items are shared throughout the organization, and need to be easily discovered.

Getting users off the desktop

By default, SharePoint 2013 stores a user's Office files in the My Sites library, rather than on the hard drive of a desktop machine. Users should embrace this new practice. It eliminates multiple copies of files and subsequent sync problems; it permits files to be readily tagged and shared; it safeguards them within SharePoint maintenance; and it submits them easily to workflow processes, without extra steps.

Getting users to stop saving files to the desktop is easier said than done, though. Workers are attached to their documents and file systems and to the ownership factor of maintaining files on their PCs. Saving files to the central repository of SharePoint requires a mental shift of sorts for them. They need to understand that saving files to a common respository doesn't detract from their access to files or their autonomy. In a sense, you need to make the case to users that, with solid tagging of content with metadata and other tactics, information becomes more discoverable and accessible to users. That means greater autonomy, not less.

So the overarching message with SharePoint 2013 is this: For users to get the autonomy from IT they crave, they need to give up some entrenched ways of working. Centralizing documents, instituting good tagging procedures and agreeing on proper metadata terminology will make a world of difference to give users the self-determination they want.

This was first published in October 2013

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