Folders in SharePoint are not evil!

So I’m certainly not the first to mention this but I heard something a few weeks ago that bugged me a little bit at the time and has been gnawing away at me. Albeit a little provocatively, a colleague mentioned to some end-users something along the lines of:

Everybody who works with SharePoint will tell you that you shouldn’t use folders to manage your documents

Now I immediately had to jump in at this point as I think there are a couple of things that are a red flag with this statement.

  1. When it comes to the Information Worker space, or OOB use of SharePoint, very rarely is it wise to give a ‘thou shalt not’ instruction
  2. There’s nothing wrong with using folders! (in my opinion)

I can understand the motivation behind a comment like this. Using document libraries with structured metadata has seemingly many advantages over a simple folder-based structure. Tying in views, metadata driven navigation (new for SP2010) and other goodies such as aggregation make the use of metadata a really compelling proposition. However, it also has it’s downsides…

We can often negate the perceived issues around user-adoption of such a metadata-only document storage scenario through technical solutions such as default values, workflow or the new content organiser in SP2010. This is aside from good Information Architecture (please don’t go crazy with thirty content types with ten mandatory fields!). In fact technical solutions are often as far as people seem to get.

One thing that people overlook or don’t give enough credence to is simply how a user feels about folders. If a user says “I don’t like metadata” then we immediately try to convince them of the benefits over folders, such as those stated above. I’m not so sure we know where to go when a user says “I like folders!”

Ok, now in reality you’re probably not going to get that statement – but there’s something that is equally as powerful and that is that often a user is completely familiar with folders and how to work with them to categorise and organise their documents. Many users will have been doing this for 15+ years! To now put forward a solution which is unfamiliar results in a high risk of users not getting the most out of a solution.

There is obviously a task to understand the users you’re working with and find out what will work best for them in their particular situation. Oftentimes this may be an ongoing task to be handed-over to the users themselves through good education of the available options – and not building a solution that ties them in too far to one particular route.

As I started writing this post I looked around on the net and found an excellent post on Clever Workarounds by Paul Culmsee, which I definitely recommend reading as he discusses this subject and it’s wider implications much better than I can!

To summarise, however, with a quick list of reasons why folders are not evil:

  • Users are familiar through longterm exposure
  • Folders are one possible alternative to navigating document libraries with a high volume, rather than paging, view etc
  • Views can still be utilised, and even have different views for different folders
  • Permissions can be setup on a folder to security trim their contents (the whys and wherefores are a whole new post!)
  • Do whatever’s necessary to get people happy and using the solution!

(Perhaps an only slightly controversial reply as to the statement don’t use folders in SharePoint!)

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19 comments to Folders in SharePoint are not evil!

  • Kerri Abraham

    I actually wrote an article about converting folders to metadata http://www.endusersharepoint.com/2010/08/02/sharepoint-convert-folder-structures-to-metadata/
    Since that article I have had a number of instances where I could see the value of adding folders. So I have to agree here that folders are NOT evil… but folders instead of metadata is a very bad idea! Using both is a powerful solution for organizing information. As long as metadata is assigned, views can be created without folders. Folders can be used to drive ‘putability’ in creative ways, especially when multiple content types are used, but search does not recognize folders as metadata,(although I suspect it may recognize folder content type metadata)so simple folders can not aid in findability. Use folders,if you must, but don’t use them in lieu of metadata, combine them with required metadata for a end-user friendly approach.

  • Absolutely disagree. Just be a user “feels’ like it’s the right way to do something, doesn’t mean it is. Yes, getting people to adopt using metadata is difficult but the benefits outweigh the feeling that it’s correct. The difficulting in getting users to adopt this new strategy is due to a lack of training. We can’t just tell people to do it a new way but TRAIN them how to do it the new way.

  • Kerri – thanks for the comment. I think your distinction between using folders for content organisation versus using as a replacement for metadata is spot on. I agree that with SP you really can’t surface the context (i.e. folder, library or site) of a document upwards to exploit that information, as you can with data stored on the item itself in columns/ metadata. I think you’re right in that a combination of both can be powerful! As long as the user is happy and repeatedly comes back to use the site then it works for me.

    Nice article by the way. I love that information worker stuff – taking out of the box features and putting them together to solve a problem!

  • Robert – it’s nice to provoke a response! If you can educate users and have a strong sense that the education will stick then I agree you can dramatically cut down their reliance on a folder structure. Sometimes I think it’s necessary to consider that it’s just not going to go in though, no matter how much training. This is all about understanding your users at the end of the day and building a solution to match their needs.

    The cost and time of training all staff also has to be considered too – especially in large enterprise deployments. Power users can certainly be trained to understand and utilise oob features – but then can that be cost and time efficiently rolled out across thousands of users?

    Btw – don’t get me wrong. I love metadata as much as the next man 🙂

  • Why not use both?

    Folders can ease user adoption, as well as making Explorer View much more useful.

    But you can also create “flat” views that ignore folders and group items based on Metadata alone.

    step 1 – have cake
    step 2 – eat it

  • Thanks for the reference. In relation to Robert’s comment, one key tenant of user adoption is that a tool will be used if its easier than not to.

    There are two organisations you need to govern for in SharePoint. The visible one where logic and facts prevail (“The difficulting in getting users to adopt this new strategy is due to a lack of training”), and the hidden one, where logic and facts give way to anxiety, values and all that idiosyncratic human behaviour. All of the training in the world will not change those habits and only looks at part of the picture.

    We could make the same claim about the use of wikis in the organsiation or social networking for the enterprise. Can we train buy-in?

    Aaron Fulkerson (co-founder and CEO of MindTouch), said this recently about social networking in the enterprise and some of the argument is valid about metadata utopia.

    “This class of software forces business users to adopt the myopic social visions imagined by the developers, which are nearly identical to their corresponding consumer web implementations. In short, social software is not solving business problems. In fact, these applications only serve to treat symptoms of the problems businesses face. They exacerbate the real problems within businesses by creating distractions and, worse, proliferate more disconnected data and application silos”

    I’ll finish by suggesting peoiple who are interested in this debate read this article (an oldie but a goodie)

    http://www.well.com/~doctorow/metacrap.htm

    Conclusion: Its not an either/or argument (it rarely is)

    regards

    Paul Culmsee

  • Paul – superb comment, thank you, and a great read on metacrap too. Great concepts of meta-utopia, info-ivory-tower, meta-laziness etc. Perhaps all we need now is mythical squad of ‘info-ninjas’…

    It would be interesting to know if the author of that article has adopted his thoughts for the user-centric techniques (tagging etc) that came into play with web 2.0.

  • Well, one thing I can say about user centric approaches. My conspiracy theory is that Microsoft handed out Rosenfelds “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web” around to the programmers of the managed metadata service. 🙂

    That author by the way is a well known sci-fi author http://craphound.com/

    I have my own theory of the appropriateness of various tools in various contexts, but I can’t go an blurt it out when I have a masterclass on the topic now can I? 🙂 hehe

    http://spiamasterclass.eventbrite.com/?ref=ebtn

    regards

    Paul

  • Jalil Sear

    I dont agree with the point that because one way is the right way hence we must force it upon users …. We have been using qwerty keyboards even though it has been proven from various studies it is not the best and most efficiently structured keyboard. Over the years many have tried and many have failed as most have now realised there is probably no way of moving away from qwerty keyboards simply because people have become use to it. So what people are use to and familiar with IS pretty important!

    What sums it up for me is when we say users must be trained which to me is an admission the UI is not good enough or natural to the end user. Which is why I think folders will always have a place, as has been correctly pointed out by Glyn, until microsoft come up with a better and more intuitive UI around metadata that wont rely on training users to get them to accept it.

    I agree with the overall point, though, that meta-data should be the preferred approach and folders should not be used instead of metadata. However there are some scenarios where using folders can be very useful or even essential.

    I came across one such scenario recently where I had a list which was going to store a lot of data. We’re talking about 20k plus records and growing. Reluctantly I decided to introduce a single level folder structure to categorise the data in a better and more effective way. Ofcourse I could have just applied some grouping on the list views but my feeling is that this option wouldnt have been as performant as using folders nor do I think the end user would have found the UI better (just my opinion).

    I am aware of some of the disadvantages of using this approach but in our specific scenario we can live with them and the client is fully aware of them. I only use folders as a last resort and I would not recommend or implement a solution whereby a document library or a list has a complex folder structure to categorise data or documents. That to me would be “trying to use a folder structure instead of using metadata” Apart from the obvious disadvantages SharePoint’s limitation of 260 characters URL length will obviously not support it.

  • Mags

    Excellent article Glyn – have been researching SP2010 folders for the last two days and was becoming disheartened. I was requested to set up a website that enable users to find specific documents with certain criteria attached and was very pleased with a filter search system I set up…until I was told that the end users would prefer folders – sob! I’ve decided to use both methods on the same page to allow the end user to use what they feel most comfortable with…which will probably be folders so your article has been comforting.

    Cheers,
    Mags.

    • Thanks Mags – I’m glad it was useful for you. If you’ve found my post interesting also make sure to check out some of the other links in the comments. Kerri and Paul have some great sources of info on this.

      Cheers

  • Mags

    I actually read Kerri’s article on converting folders to metadata – very useful! Thanks again Glyn, it’s great to find a resource for SharePoint (both 2007 and 2010) that deals with workarounds, which is something I’m doing regularly to keep our end users happy!

  • Dora

    Hi

    Great articel and feedback!

    I just want to point out that “Robert’s” reply is typical for someone from a consulting comany that is looking for business. Too bad people try to force things on others based on their need for money as oppsed to what is RIGHT.

  • Pipboy

    I must disagree to claim that “folders are not evil”.
    Why? Because they ARE!. Just as bad as veneral diseases. Easy to get and hard to get rid of. Even if they sneak into library as “temporary”, “harmless” categorising feature. Sooner or later, you´ll be sorry.
    Wheter:
    1) Folder structures get deep
    2) Folders are named inconsistently
    3) Folders are competing (people post material to one or another and get get out of sync)
    4) Folders get oversized. Behold, the all containing “Varia” or “Other materials” folders.
    5) Unique security trimmings get out of hand.
    6) You have to create hordes of views rather than filtering by metadata columns

    etc etc ad nauseam.

    I´ve seen libraries of 40000+ items with folder names completly on acid (Sample: http://www.something/site/Version_1_final_12/reallyfinal/No_honestly_final8v6). Deep as Mariana Trench, spanning tens of steps. Security trimmings that make Kerberos look like chihuahua pup. These things are ghoulish ladies and gentlemen, ghoulish i say. These things make grown men cry and run away to become hermits.

    Please, in sake of all holy. Whenever possible, kill this medieval monster called Folder and show people that there are more efficient ways.
    Yes, there are scenarios, where metadata management can be tricky, but that´s why evolution gave us brains, figure it out.
    Argument that “I feel like using folders” should result in explaination on why folders are evil. And if the argument is repeated, punch to the face, until universe sends some divine sense through that thik skull.
    For exsample i might feel like going to duck hunt with a battle tank, ride a horse on highway, drive a gas guzzler to “guarantee” bright future for our children, try to pay my rent in camels etc. But all these things make you look either odd, irresponsible or outdated. And in long run, make you or someone else feel sorry.

    PS! Sorry for bad english, it´s not my native language.
    PPS! Sorry for bad humor.

  • Jason Brinkley

    Pipboy is SPOT on – Folders are evil, and anyone who has ACTUALLY administered a medium-large corporate SharePoint environment knows these reasons. The file name legth issues and nesting issues are enough reason to stop using folders. In small, or simplistic document management scenarios, folders MAY/MIGHT serve some value, but if you cant get your users off folders, you should send them back to fileshares. Until you get in the trenches and actually fight these real issues, folders do seem okay. But with knowledge comes responsibility, and that responsibility for SharePoint administrators is to limit the use of folders whereever possible.

  • Jason Brinkley

    And this isnt opinion, this is based on the technical limitations of the platform -http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ff919564.aspx

  • Audrey

    The one comment that I haven’t seen is about character restrictions. If your users are allowed to drag and drop the folder structure in explorer view there is the possibility of lost documents. If SharePoint doesn’t like the name the file won’t transfer. The end user is not alerted of this failure, document is lost when deleted. Who wants to pay for the manpower to go back and verify every single document all the way through the file structure. No thanks

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