Organize your documents in SharePoint

3 Ways to Organize Your Documents in SharePoint

March 9, 2016 by Jeff Lydon

What is the best way to organize your documents in SharePoint? There are three approaches: folders, columns and managed meta data. You can also combine approaches. Below we share the pros and cons of each.

Microsoft SharePoint is very flexible when it comes to organizing documents. You can organize documents with folders. You can let users tag documents with user defined columns. You can create a managed hierarchy of metadata for users to select from when uploading documents. Or you can use a combined approach.

It is important to understand the benefits and limitations of each approach before deciding which is right for your use case.

Approaches to Organizing Documents in SharePoint

1) Organizing Documents in Folders

Most organizations primarily use folders in Document Libraries to store documents.

Organizing by folders is popular because it builds on the familiar. File folders are based on the way paper documents used to be stored in file cabinets. Folders also mirror a typical shared drive. So users find this approach intuitive and easy.

One downside of folders is upkeep. Documents have to be moved from one folder to another to be re-classified. The organization scheme of several levels of folders can be confusing. Documents can get misfiled in incorrect or redundant folders over time.

2) Organizing Documents with Columns

A second organizational approach makes use of columns to sort documents.

This approach is implemented by creating SharePoint columns in Document Libraries. Columns of various types can be added easily. The columns are then applied to each document at upload.

Columns make it simple for users to filter, sort and organize content. Documents can be re-organized by editing the columns. There is no need to physically move documents in order to re-classify based on columns.

There are a couple considerations that limit the utility of columns by themselves. First, they do not provide permission control like folders. But you can use a third-party tool if permissions are a requirement.  Second, the organization of documents can get messy over time with redundant or unnecessary columns added by users. You can mitigate this by instituting site columns or content types site across your sites or collections .

Combining Columns and Folders:

Columns and folders can also be combined for a hybrid approach. Folders enable permissions control – a key requirement for many use cases. The use of columns helps with filtering, sorting and searching.

This hybrid model is often preferable to only using folders for organization. But it still has some of the drawbacks listed above for folders and columns.

3) Organizing Documents with Managed Meta Data

A third approach organizes documents using a centrally managed set of terms in the SharePoint term store.

This approach relates documents to keywords like the column approach above. The distinction is that users cannot create their own meta data unless they are given access to the term store. All organizational terms are managed by the administrator and can be utilized across sites and collections.

The managed meta data, or taxonomy, approach therefore requires a more structured document organization model. An organizational hierarchy must be created in advance and maintained over time. These terms become the choices available as meta data columns in your content libraries when users upload documents.

The big advantages of this approach are 1) more robust filtering and searching, 2) standardization across all of your content and 3) centralized management of terms.

Managed meta data also enables SharePoint Drop Off Libraries.  A Drop Off Library allows users to upload documents in a single library.  Documents are then routed to a specific location based on rules, simplifying the upload process for the end user.

Managed meta data can also be used for navigation across sites and collections and as keywords to aid in search refiners.

But there are some downsides. There is significant work involved maintaining a managed meta data hierarchy. Users must learn the rigorous document management controls involved with this approach. Finally, some content types in SharePoint do not play nice with meta data.  So it is important to consider what types of content will be used as a first step.

Bottom line: most organizations would not use the managed meta data approach without a strong use case justification.

Combining Columns, Folders, and Managed Meta data:

You could combine columns, folders and managed meta data for a hybrid approach. This would give you the permission capabilities of folders, the search and sorting of columns, and the structured classification of all your documents using managed meta data.

So Which Approach Should You Use?

Each of the above organizational approaches is appropriate for certain use cases. This is why gathering requirements to understand your document management needs is an essential first step.

Our next blog post will discuss document organization in relation to common requirements in the construction industry. Be sure to check back for tips on picking the right document organization approach for you.

Want to learn more about the powerful document management features of our award-winning Construction Program Management Portal powered by SharePoint?

Contact us for a free consultation.


1 Comment

  • Siobhan Molloy says:

    Thanks – this was useful. It would enhance this information page if you linked to a screen shot exemplar for each suggestion.

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