Most organizations have become used to storing documents in the traditional file folder structure. We all use files that are shared on the network. They are used for sharing documents and files in a central location. Security is set on file shares, folders and files and the end user has been taught how to use network drive letters for finding, opening and saving documents. Also they are used to cascading down folder structures to find their document (assuming they are familiar with the structure.
The folder based filing system has some disadvantages though. Administrators and end users must learn how to work with the files and make sure that the files have the correct access permissions. Linking documents together, adding customized attributes (meta data) and specifying the way the documents are presented for a subset of users is not easy. Searching through all file shares for documents containing specific words or created by a specific user can also be quite a slow process. There is limited document management – check out / check in, no way to apply approval processes and compliance rules are not easily achieved. Linking documents to subjects in business processes such as linking an employee record to employee documents requires programming.
With Office 365 and SharePoint, you can now have a powerful alternative to the File Share. With SharePoint Online you can now store your files on the web and manage them with powerful document management tools. SharePoint Online provides additional features compared to the typical Windows file share. With SharePoint Online they can be arranged in folders as usual, but also could be given tags or “metadata” to classify the documents to allow alternative multiple classifications. Combine this with a full text search across all types of documents in all libraries and folders and the issue of finding that important document is a thing of the past. Additionally you can link the documents to SharePoint lists to provide powerful links between business applications and documents.
For example; now you can find an agreement related to an account by going to the Account (see example here) and looking at related documents. You can filter and sort document attributes to find all the agreements for a certain type of account. Or if you are creating a new HR policy, you can collaborate as a team on it, with check-in check-out control, approvals, even moving it to a portal library for access by all employees in a read only mode (see example here). These and other endless examples are powered by a list of document management features in SharePoint Online. Here are a few.
- Workflows, such as approval procedure, help automating simple or complex tasks – with or without user interference
- Versioning adds the ability to see older versions of documents and controls which users can see the latest published version and who can edit the draft for the next published version of the file or document
- Item visibility - Users do not have the ability to see information that they do not have permission to see.
- Set Alerts for changes - you can set different types of email notifications when changes are made to the documents
- Sharing - choose to share libraries, or individual documents with internal and external users
- Link to Subject – link documents to list items through lookups in the metadata. This allows you to view the subject (ex. Account, Contact) and reference all the documents related to them.
- Lifecycle management that can be activated for archiving old content
- Powerful Filtering and Search – With SharePoint Online, cascading up and down directory trees is a thing of the past. Now you can use Meta Data to filter and find documents, as well as a powerful search capability.
Mindset Mistake: Creating a File Share on SharePoint
Now I am sure you are thinking, wow this SharePoint stuff sound pretty neat! Well it is if implemented correctly. A major mistake many organizations make is to deploy document management just like a file share on SharePoint. They create a single massive site for all documents, create libraries with folder structures and load documents into them. This is way underutilizing SharePoint! It like driving a 6 speed car and never getting out of second gear.
Because SharePoint can do much more than just document management, you may want to think through where you put libraries. With SharePoint you can create team sites for departments or teams where they can collaborate, track tasks, and manage documents. So create an HR team site with document libraries and put the HR related documents there. Add metadata to the document items in the library which identifies what employee the document is for, so you can attach it to their record (see example here). Put sales documents in a sales team site. Create a folder for proposal templates, and link documents to accounts through metadata also. Create a Project Site and link project documents to specific projects. Now you are using SharePoint as a real collaboration engine!
When to use SharePoint for Document Storage and When not to.
Some might ask themselves if they should move all their existing file shares to SharePoint Online to take advantage of the features. The real answer is no not all. It depends on which kind of data you have and how you want to use or present it”. SharePoint is excellent for “active” files. Files that are used as part of the business. It does have storage limits so you want to be careful how much storage you use. Here is some guidelines:
Windows file share
- Large file size
- Do not change much
- Archives, backups. Etc.
SharePoint document library
- Small and midsized in size
- Changes regularly
- Files used by teams on projects
- Files and folders that need custom attributes and links/filters to these
- Files that need to be indexed and searched for
Keep in mind that the user experience can differ very much and you may have to educate your users to use a new place to store files. If they are used to using network drives they may see a web interface as a challenge.