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Identifying must-have features in file-sharing programs

Choosing a file-sharing program takes some planning and understanding of your business requirements.

Commoditized cloud offerings like file-sharing programs offer consumer choice. But, perversely, choice may also drive the need for migration as the market and feature sets shake out. The file-sharing market is still in a state of flux and growing maturity.

File sharing -- or enterprise file sync and share apps -- has been a staple enterprise need since digital transformation has come to define the workplace. Companies need a central place to share, edit, manage and find files securely, without losing control of versions and without creating undue hurdles that force employees to default to easier modes of exchange, such as email attachments. Workers need to be able to share these files regardless of their location and regardless of the device they're using.

File-sharing programs can be distinguished from more full-featured enterprise content management (ECM) software in that they tend to be cloud-based and less heavyweight. They are often easier to use and less heavyweight in terms of configuration, management and users' day-to-day interactions. At the same time, file-sharing programs have sometimes failed to meet expectations. They may not provide sufficient security or features to be compliant with regulatory needs. They may not be rigorous enough in terms of workflow automation or editing capabilities. This is why users have sometimes defaulted to ECM platforms, despite their heavyweight, difficult-to-use reputations.

Given the array of options in the market for file-sharing programs and content management, more generally, users should feel empowered -- but also cautious. There is no shortage of technologies in the market, and they include brands such as Box, Dropbox, OneDrive for Business, Google and Syncplicity.

Technology buyers and users should recognize that choice is good, but it can also create a need rather than trying to choose a technology that has every feature under the sun. Requirements change over time, and service offerings change rapidly, bringing competitive functionality to the market. Organizations typically won't require all features from the outset, but rather a roadmap to accommodate needs as level of maturity of use increases.

Companies may need to migrate for a variety of reasons, from the quality of support of the provider; licensing cost; and the ability to integrate the technology with existing technologies a company has in-house, such as electronic signature.

Often organizations will be using many file-sharing mechanisms, sometimes by design, but more likely because of organic growth and personal preferences of employees largely supported by a lack of centrally defined governance standards and IT controls.

If a company is migrating to or from a file-sharing program, it is no different from when it was choosing a provider for the first time. There are two principles of change, namely to what target solutions and how will the change be executed. The target solutions must be well thought through based on solid principles of spec and select rather than wishes or whims.

Important features in file-sharing programs

Solution and service provider criteria to consider should include the following:

  • Analysis including statistics. Ability to meet regulatory reporting requirements including audit history of file access such as reads, updates, downloads and uploads.
  • Collaboration. Ability to develop notes external to the file as well as embed and track changes within the file. The ultimate ability for collaboration is to have multiple users operating on the same file at the same time without overwriting changes or versions, known as co-authoring.
  • Integration with other applications. Ability to seamlessly move files in and out of the file-sharing environment from other applications, including services in the Microsoft Office suite as well as CRM and ERP systems. Integration also includes the ability to interoperate with different and often disparate repositories.
  • Mobile functionality. Full capabilities of the file-sharing service being available on mobile devices including across different operating systems and different form factors.
  • Preview. Comprehensive preview capability, including not only common office document formats such as Microsoft Word and Excel, but other, less common everyday formats.
  • Retention policies. Rules-based tools to support content governance including automatically deleting, archiving and moving files among repositories.
  • Security and permissions. Ability for comprehensive, fine-grained permission attributes such as read only, prohibit downloads and allow updates support for when users are not in the organization domain and potentially not signed up to the file-sharing provider -- solutions to this include file access links with timed expiry.
  • Synchronization. Background moving of files between the file-sharing environment and local resources for offline access -- typically desktop, but also mobile devices. Synchronization should manage multiple offline changes by potentially different users by effecting a merge or gracefully denying updates.

As well as the function and feature criteria outlined above, a mature spec and select strategy will also include nonfunctional aspects, such as cost of operation and deployment, quality of service and defined service-level agreements. Migration considerations include the project roadmap, project plan, approach, pilot, user training and adoption, change management and planning an actual physical content move.

The latter is often the most overlooked, with organizations taking a holistic approach to content migration without considering the detail gleaned through a proper information architecture assessment. Constructing an information architecture following a content inventory will help drive out use cases, inform business taxonomy classification and start to drive efficiency in overall content management. Content management is critical to support effective governance, retention and archiving, effective search and electronic process-driven efficiencies. When considering a file-sharing program, here are some important steps:

  • Develop a formal request-for-proposal process with several vendors to compare feature sets.
  • Execute a proper strategy and planning exercise.
  • Pay close attention to content detail through a formal content inventory and information architecture approach.
  • Set up a hybrid content migration approach with a correct blend of automated and user-driven migration.

The file-sharing program market will continue to shake out over the coming years. Expect to see file sharing become more intrinsic with ECM, collaboration, document management, backup and recovery, and storage solutions more broadly. The leading providers will have better integration with line-of-business applications and with multiple content repositories, comprehensive cross-systems federation, powerful management tools and integrated content governance capabilities.

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