Challenges with document management in SharePoint
SharePoint is a great foundation to your document management system on. The problem is that SharePoint is also notorious for requiring extensive knowledge of the platform’s inner workings. SharePoint is very flexible, perhaps too flexible. When building your information model and permissions, you have many options and not all of them work well in the long term.
Too many options in SharePoint
Subsites or site collections?
There are two ways in which you can build your site topology: with sub-sites or site collections. Historically, it has been common to create a single site collection and then create multiple subsites within it. For example, a subsite for each project would be created in the project site collection.
This approach, although simple and convenient, has some problems:
- You are limited in the amount of data you can store in a single site collection
- All SharePoint groups are managed from the top-level site instead of the relevant subsite
- Language variations of columns are not propagated to subsites
Site collections have none of these problems, but SharePoint lacks the right tools to handle them at scale.
Site columns or list columns?
SharePoint allows the creation of content types and columns at the site or list level. It can be tempting for a site owner to create columns directly in the document library. This is not desirable if you want to build a consistent and reusable information model that is managed centrally. The best way is to publish site content types from the Content Type Hub.
Teams, groups or sites?
You can manage access to SharePoint sites in two ways: Office 365 groups or SharePoint groups. When you create a modern group site in SharePoint Online, an Office 365 group is automatically created. This involves some side effects:
- Other resources that you may not want created, including. Exchange inbox
- A new Azure Active Directory group is created for each new team
- The document library is used to store files from Team chats, Planner attachments, etc.
You probably don’t want to clutter up your Exchange server and your users’ Outlook with unused inboxes and calendars. If you have a well-structured Active Directory, you should reuse the groups you have instead of creating a new group for each Team Site. Mixing your structured documents with single attachments in Teams and Planner can get messy. For example, if you have mandatory fields or feeds running for new documents, this would apply to single screenshots posted in chat as well as your health insurance.
By creating site collections without Office 365 groups, you get what you need for document management and nothing more. Assigning existing security groups to SharePoint groups keeps your directory neat and tidy, and adding a new user is easy on many sites.
Content types or metadata?
Content types are SharePoint’s way of grouping sets of columns to be used together. Unfortunately, it is common for them to be used incorrectly as a substitute for metadata. This makes maintenance difficult because:
- It takes a long time to provide new types of content to sites
- They are not automatically added to lists
- Cannot be hierarchical
- Impossible to break inheritance by content type
Centrally managed document templates that are available on all sites are not configurable in SharePoint. Usually you associate a template with a content type. You are limited to one content type template. With this method, you quickly get many identical content types.
Some organisations put their templates in the file server on prem or in an organisation asset library if running Office 365. The disadvantage of this is that new documents are created on users’ desktops and are not handled by SharePoint until they are uploaded.
You can add templates to modern document libraries. However, these are stored locally in that library and are therefore not managed centrally.
Finding a site that you haven’t bookmarked is not easy in SharePoint. Delve tries to suggest sites to your users based on their and their colleagues’ activity. However, it cannot predict which page you need to access at any given time. It is possible to search for sites in Microsoft Search but there is no good overview and it is not possible to tag sites with metadata.
Making sure your sites are created correctly is very difficult with SharePoint. Firstly, end users can create sites on their own initiative by default. This can result in many sites and groups being created with the wrong information model and security settings. If you have not disabled this, you may already have many uncontrolled sites.
Site template is the modern way to create reusable configurations for new sites. These may include your information model. Creating site designs requires SharePoint developer skills. Problems arise when you have many sites and you need to change something retroactively, such as adding a new content type. Then that too must be done by a developer.
By default, site owners are granted Full Control permissions for their site collection. This implies great risk. Such a user may:
- Changing security settings by mistake
- Accidentally delete the entire site
- Deleting document libraries and their contents by mistake
- Destroy the information model
Inconsistent user experience
Working with documents is a different experience depending on the context. The modern document library, the classic document library and the Files tab in Teams are technically interfaces for the same thing but the user experience is completely different.
Searching in SharePoint Online is difficult because you can’t see the context in which you are searching. Sometimes you search within a library, sometimes within a site or sometimes globally. The search box looks the same in all these cases. We can’t really blame the users for their confusion in this case.
The process of uploading documents to SharePoint can be very difficult to understand for users who have long experience of working with file servers where you browse to a location and save the file there. In SharePoint, you first upload and then set the file metadata.
How to make MetaShare SharePoint work
MetaShare is an Office 365 document management app that enhances SharePoint. It is part of the document management along with OneDrive, Teams, Office Groups and SharePoint. MetaShare will help and simplify the work of the organisation and users with documents in SharePoint.
This is how MetaShare is configured to apply a homogeneous standard to metadata and document management settings.
When you create a workspace in MetaShare, an associated site collection is automatically created for you. This is a standard Team Site without any custom code uploaded to it. The site is only configured according to one of your workspace configurations. We use the standard document library for file storage so there is no confusion about where to save a document when you use the Save As function in Office for example.
The configuration of the workspace specifies which content types should be added to the library and which filters and columns should be visible in the view.
If you make a change to a configuration, it is automatically propagated to all existing workspaces. You don’t need to hire a developer just to add a new content type to a set of sites.
Instead of giving owners Full Control, we add a custom permission level called Manage. This gives the owners the same permissions as a member plus managing members in groups and discarding checked out documents. This way, owners can manage permissions securely, there is no risk of the site breaking or being erased incorrectly.
In MetaShare, you specify a separate administrator user who is added as the site collection administrator on all sites that MetaShare creates. This account is for troubleshooting purposes only and should not be used for everyday use.
Information model that scales
A traditional file server uses a folder hierarchy and uses a dimension to find documents. Someone designs the folder hierarchy for the organization and thinks it is the most logical structure for the documents. It’s just that the structure is rarely logical to others.
A multidimensional structure allows you to store, search and filter documents, not just in one dimension – but in multiple dimensions. Dimensions that are important to your organisation.
MetaShare encourages you to build your information model multidimensionally according to best practice. This means that content types are created and published from the Content Type Hub, the taxonomy is built in the term repositories and managed metadata columns are used to tag documents. This way, your information model is robust and can be changed without much effort.
You can also use the same taxonomy to tag workspaces. This way, your users can filter their way to the workspace they need to work in. If you have a large set of documents with the same metadata, consider adding them to a workspace that is then tagged with these common values.
In MetaShare, document templates are associated with terms rather than content types. This removes the restriction of one template per content type. A term can have many templates and a template can be associated with many terms. You can also have general templates that are not linked to any term.
These associations are then displayed as suggestions when you create documents in MetaShare. For example, if the document is tagged with the term letter, users will be suggested one or more letter templates.
We have no restrictions on which templates can be used with the terms. There is no obstacle for users to use other templates than the proposed ones in case the administrator missed to make an association.
Since it is easy to create a document from a template, users are encouraged to create new documents that are stored in SharePoint from scratch. So users don’t forget to upload files to the document management system.
Consistent user experience
In MetaShare, you create and find collaboration spaces and documents in the same way. This means that you will spend less time training your users.
You always search within the context of what you see on the screen, e.g. within a workspace or all documents.
Automatic tagging is a feature of MetaShare that makes uploading documents much more natural. You can start by selecting one or more filters and then they will be pre-filled in the metadata form for creating or uploading documents. This workflow is similar to how you work on a file server, where you first browse and then save.