Document Management in SharePoint – My Best Practices

The document management component of SharePoint is easily one of my favorite (if not my favorite) feature of SharePoint. Whenever I do a SharePoint consultation for a team, I like to stress the document management features. I also like to debunk a common SharePoint myth: that SharePoint is just a dumping ground for documents. Yes it’s true that SharePoint can easily take your documents, but there’s so much more to it. This article covers some best practices for moving your documents into SharePoint and improving ease of use. Hopefully this article will give you some guidance before you decide to dump that network folder into SharePoint. Just a quick note – this article will not teach you how to configure document libraries. If you want a good how-to – click here.

Preparing your files to move into SharePoint

Although SharePoint does function like a network folder, however it does have to abide by a few more rules. For example, since it is a web-based application, you can’t just have unlimited lengths in your file / folder names.  SharePoint will simply give you an error message (The specified file or folder name is too long.) and not tell you exactly what file or folder is causing the problem. According to Microsoft, “The URL path for all files and folders must be 260 characters or less (and no more than 128 characters for any single file or folder name in the URL”. This means that if you have extremely long file names, extremely long folder names, or deeply nested folders, you may need to think about the general organization before you drop your files in. You may find yourself reorganizing your folders before you are able to drop your files in.

Once you’ve dealt with your file folder structure, you will need to look at your file names. Although Windows will allow you to have special characters in file names – SharePoint does not. The biggest offender is the & symbol. Make sure that none of your files have special characters before you dump them into SharePoint.

Cleaning up your files

We’ve all been there: in order to keep track of file versions, you simply put the current date and your initials at the end of the file name. When your task  / project is over, you find that you have 20 copies of the same file all differing by the date and the acronyms at the end! This might seem like organization, but if you try to search, all 20 files will appear! To add another layer to the problem, if you dump all of these file versions into SharePoint, the search will return all of the files as well. Doing this pretty much cripples any search feature. SharePoint has a comprehensive search feature that even reads documents.  You may want to clean up your network folders to ensure that you can benefit from the SharePoint search features.

Folders vs columns

If you are thinking about moving a network folder into SharePoint, chances are that you tried to create a level of organization through using network folders. I have been against using folders as a primary method of organization since I started using SharePoint. I actually prefer a combination of folders and columns to increase the ease of navigation through the documents. As you drill down into folders, you cannot see what is inside of the  upper or lower level folders. You have to drill down into a folder to see what is inside, and then navigate up and out to see what else is available.

Folders provide a logical way to organize your content. However, you cannot sort and filter information by a folder. You also cannot see what is inside of a folder without opening the folder. If you use columns, you can apply unlimited sets of meta data to your files. Below are some examples of file meta data that I often use:

  • Description
  • Status ( Active / Archived)
  • Author
  • Language
  • Date ( This is not the date it was created/modified, but the date the document is related to)

When setting up your views, you can choose to show or hide folders. By hiding folders, you can view documents in an unlimited number of sub folders. This little feature allows you to put files in folders that make sense to you and also benefit from the sorting and filtering of the meta data you have entered. The down side to this is that you have to enter meta data for your files to use this feature.

One last tip: SharePoint can only support 1000 or so documents in a folder or view before it starts to have performance issues. You may want to use folders to avoid this file limitation, but use columns to provide easy ways to navigate your files.

You can read more about this here : https://okwera.com/2009/11/combining-columns-and-folders-in-sharepoint/

Setting up your views

Assuming that you have figured out your document library columns and folders, you are probably ready to create views. If you create different views based on your meta data (columns), you can create multiple interfaces for end users that will make it easier to navigate through your files. Referencing the columns I mentioned above, I use the custom status column to help me mark files as relevant (active) or old versions (archived). I created a view that groups documents by their status, making it easy to see the files that are active and the files that are considered old and should not be referenced. You can easily put the same document library web part on a single page in different views to make it easier for users to navigate the files. The first view would show a standard list view with your choice of display.  The second web part should show the document library in its default view with folders. This allows users to upload a file into the folder that it belongs to, but view the document in the view that hides folders.  Give careful thought to the views so that users can easily get to the files that are buried deep in the folders.

Search vs filtering / sorting

SharePoint provides a very powerful search feature. Not only will it search file names, titles, and columns, but it will also open documents and read the documents and return search results accordingly. This means that the search can find pretty much anything. The down side is that this means that the search will also return results for anything that matches your search terms. Because of this search capability, search should not be your only method to help users find your files. If you use columns effectively, your users will be able to find documents by combining filters of columns to narrow down the documents that they want. Make sure that you hide folders in your views that you intend to use with filtering and sorting. You do not have the ability to narrow down the search results by columns without custom development, so unless you have a developer on-hand, you should try organizing your content by columns and use sorting / filtering as a primary method.

Versioning

Version control in SharePoint will eliminate the need to rename files in order to track versions. SharePoint also provides several ways for team members to communicate what has been changed in a version. You can require users to enter a comment for the version before they save. This makes it easy to track the changes as you review the list of versions that are available. You can also request that users enter a message in the check-in comments field. You can then display the comment in the document views. This helps your users understand what is inside of a document before they open the document. You can also use the approver comments field to track information regarding the approval or rejection of a file.

Some final words of wisdom

Don’t be afraid to create multiple document libraries. Sometimes it’s better to split a network folder into multiple document libraries to allow for searching of just a section or to handle issues with deep nested folders. Do not use file names to try to store all of the information about the document. Instead you should use additional columns to store that information. Try to use columns that will work for sorting and filtering. Get out of the habit of renaming files. If you choose to use workflows and rename a file while in the middle of a workflow, it will automatically terminate the workflow. The bottom line is that you need to think long and hard about how you want to organize your documents before you move your files into SharePoint. Do not simply open explorer view and copy and paste an entire network drive into a SharePoint document library. If you design this properly, your users will be able to quickly work through the files that are in the document library. If you do not, you will have the same issues as you did with your network folders, and your search will not yield useful results.

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