19 October 2015

SharePoint File Categorization With Folders, Columns and Libraries

SharePoint iconI very often come into contact with organizations that want to move from a file server to SharePoint. Usually this is something they expect to be a fast and painless process without much work and with immediate benefits.

It can be fast, and there are some benefits right away, but I recommend that you think through how your information should be categorized in SharePoint. That way you will gain much more, and you will use SharePoint the way it was intended to be used.

Tips series on categorization
In a series of articles in the SharePoint Online from Scratch series, I give some tips on the categorization of files in document libraries.

It is possible to put all of your files directly into a big document library with lots of folders within folders. Most things will work as they did in the file server, and you will have the additional features of file versions, full text search, workflows, views and alerts. But there are better ways!

What categories?
Categorization is one of these things that everyone has an opinion on but very few companies and individuals actually have any real strategy for.

The only group that really knows categorization well are librarians. You would never walk into a library and find a section of books printed in Stockholm or a section with all the books from the great publishing houses of Ursa Minor, or even a section of the books published in 2014!

However, in most organizations those are exactly the kind of non-standard categorization you will find when exploring their file servers and all the folder hierarchies.

Categorization tools
My Tips articles and video demonstrations will not help you solve the categorization strategy problem, but I try to show you some tools that will allow you to be flexible and use the power of SharePoint.

Starting from the most popular but least recommended I will begin with the old and tried Folder. I will show that it actually does have some benefits, especially when used with OneDrive for Business or the “Open with Windows Explorer” feature.

The main argument for folders is that your users will feel right at home and you will not have to change the way your information is stored on the file server. However, you will quickly experience that folders have some major drawbacks. SharePoint is really not built for handling folders in a good way, and it has some serious folder-related annoyances.

The folder one dimension drawback
Folders rely on information being categorized in one dimension only. Imagine if a site such as were organized into folders. It would start out rather well. I could click my way into the Europe folder and then into the London folder, but then I would quickly realize that once I get into deeper categories it gets complex. Where will I find the hotels that both have both the “Free breakfast” and the “Free wifi”? In one of those folders or both?

As you see, at a certain level of complexity the folder way of storing information breaks down. Most likely your information is that complex too. A good way of categorization is creating list columns and combining them with views, so that your information can be sliced and diced in many ways.

If we continue to use the hotels example from above, I would create a country column based on the choice, managed meta data or lookup column type, and then I would create two yes/no fields for the breakfast and the wifi.

If I fill out the column values for my hotel description documents correctly, it would be very easy for anyone to find hotels with free wifi and breakfast in London by applying a filter.

Multiple document libraries
Once you start building with views and columns it quickly becomes apparent which files fit into your document library and which don’t. To continue with the travel example I started above, it would be silly to fill out the “Swimming Pool” value on an excursion and the “Mode of transportation” value for a hotel.

Thus instead of trying to fit both excursions and hotels in one document library it makes more sense to create one document library for each of those information types. Using multiple libraries for different kinds of files is generally a good idea.

In a following blog post I will expand the subject of categorization a bit more, and include links to more Tips articles with demos. I hope this will be useful!

By Peter Kalmström
CEO and Systems Designer Business Solutions