Folders are Evil! (And what to do about them)

by Kelly Rusk

Folders provide a single faceted, single point of failure that has limited users and caused inefficiency and risk across Enterprises for years. This is largely due to the nature of a folder. It provides a single source of storage with security options, but once you start nesting folders it creates a single path that may be forgotten or corrupted by improper naming or governance failings. Many organizations complain that their file shares are out of control, and while they may have begun with the best of intentions, the intended use was either not clearly identified or sustained and the end result looks something like the following. How will an organization know where their “real” content is located? 

An even better question is “What makes folders and file shares evil?” Key factors behind “Folder Fail” are as follows:

Single Faceted
Folders have a single point of failure in that folders have only one descriptor. Add nested folders that may be incorrectly named and you have a recipe for failure as users forget folder names, don’t understand the path of nested folders, or stumble across multiple versions of the same document (more on that later!).

Naming Convention
Establishing and maintaining a naming convention is a constant challenge as users tend to classify and call items by different names. While this is always a core issue when attempting to classify content, it is greatly enlarged by the fact that users only have one name for a folder and must have consensus around that single name.

Governing a file plan is a task that leads many stating “there has to be a better way”. It can be a very difficult/highly bureaucratic situation in which users can either create folders per a rigid standard or request new structures per a centralized source. In either case, these structures tend to crumble under the weight of user pressure demanding more flexibility or the inability for a centralized source to keep up with the workload. Key governance challenges include and are not limited to:

  • Constantly rearranging folder structures to meet the classification needs of a single faceted environment
  • Security and breaking of inheritance
  • Guiding users to place content in one folder, when the content technically applies to many folders
  • Ensuring that users who have authority to create folders maintain it per the file plan
  • Creating a sustainability plan to allow the file share to naturally grow or reduce in line with the organization

Folders promote the isolation of content and the culture of “ME” as users who become frustrated with the file share decide to organize content they work on via their personal name or other naming convention. The end result is “Siloed Imperialism” in which users cannot find each other’s content because they don’t understand the structure of another user, or users lock down their content to prevent others from viewing their work.

Multiple Versions of the Truth
Not all content can be stored in one folder as it may have implications that cross folders. In this situation, users may actually maintain multiple copies… and multiple copies equal more risk. Additionally, users who cannot find what they are looking for may recreate a document, in a new folder, and when other users find multiple versions of that document… they don’t know which one is current and authentic. Enterprises subjected to an eDiscovery in this situation often find that they have upwards of 37 versions of a document stored across the file share, personal folders, email, and cloud storage. They are highly limited in producing the correct document and, from a Records Management standpoint, can’t locate all the content that should face disposition. The end result tends to be a settlement with the querying party, as it would be more expensive to locate and identify the proper documents, then to defend against the grounds of the eDiscovery.

Promotes Localization of Content
Users frustrated with the constraints of a file share tend to save their content locally. This adds more risk and reduces collaboration. While a file share is operating on a secure server (hopefully!), a user’s hard drive can walk out of the door with them along with all of a companies’ information.

Inefficiency, legal risk, and non-collaborative culture… what is an organization to do???

Breaking away from the dangers of folders and file shares requires a brave step towards embracing Enterprise Content Management (ECM) best practices. Users will be resistant and hesitant because of the change… and will demand the answer to one question… “What’s in it for me?”

The simple answer is… You will find your content, collaborate/manage your content, and get rid of your content while SAVING TIME.

Getting there however, takes some work, and those who leverage a tool such as SharePoint 2010 need to understand a few things:

  • ECM takes work, but the work pays off in the long run
  • Don’t touch SharePoint unless you know what you want to do with it
  • SharePoint won’t read  your mind and most implementations fail due to a lack of planning
  • Don’t copy your file share into SharePoint, as that is just “garbage in/garbage out”
  • You must govern your environment and have a sustainability plan in place
  • Learn the value of content classification. Specifically the use of a Taxonomy, Content Types, and Metadata (Site Columns)

Proper content classification is the counterpoint to the single faceted failures of folders and file shares. While a folder has only one descriptor, a Content Type within SharePoint 2010 is multifaceted in that it has various Metadata (Site Columns or Fields) to classify a piece of content with.

Content Classification consists of three primary elements; a Taxonomy, Metadata, and Content Types. A Taxonomy is a hierarchical classification of terms. Metadata (Site Column or Field) is “data about data” in that it provides context to content, while a Content Type is a collection of Metadata.

An example of a Content Type would be one named “Proposal” with Metadata fields for “Title”, “Department Name” and “Proposal Date”. The values for the Department could come from the Taxonomy.

Example “Proposal” Content Type

Once a piece of content is classified, it can now be located via its Metadata or text contents. Examples of finding content in this environment include:

SharePoint Views: Create different presentations of the content, such as alphabetizing via “Department Name” or grouping via “Proposal Date”. Filters can also be applied to show only Proposals created in the last week, month, year, etc.

Metadata Navigation/Filters: Filter through a set of documents by its metadata. SharePoint 2010 allows for Metadata Navigation via the following:

  • Content Type
  • Choice Field
  • Managed Metadata Field
  • Person or Group Field
  • Date and Time Field
  • Number Field

Search with Refinements: SharePoint 2010 search functionality (powered by FAST) allows a user to not only search via the full text of a document, but will also extract Metadata and present these as “Refinements” to filter search results.

Web Parts and Customizations: If the aforementioned tools don’t meet your needs, SharePoint 2010 boosts a wide range of Web Parts and capabilities to customize the platform to meet retrieval and viewing requirements. One such out of the box Web Part is the Content Query Web Part which allows the presentation of documents across multiple libraries per filtered criteria.

Are you ready to make the bold move away from folders???

Beyond the “Find” capabilities of SharePoint 2010, core Document Management features such as Versioning, Check in/Check Out, Workflows, Item Level Security, Compliance Details, and Alerts bolster a user’s capabilities to manage their content.

Considering the benefits of embracing Enterprise Content Management and leveraging SharePoint 2010, organizations can move away from folders entirely and into an environment where content presentation can be quickly modified via Metadata (no more rearranging folders), one version of the truth can be maintained (no more wondering if the document is the correct version), and users can find what they are looking for while collaborating in the culture of “WE”.