SharePoint best practices and advice are nothing new -- consultants like me have been inundating SharePoint users out there with our tips, tricks, advice, admonishments and so on for years. You could make a whole career out of doing nothing more than telling people what to do and what not to do with SharePoint…and lots of people do.
But in my travels through the content management landscape of corporate America, I can count on one hand (with some fingers to spare) the number of organizations that have benefitted from this advice in a sustained way. Typically, SharePoint is a mess wherever I go -- little better than the share drives (and often worse than the Notes databases) it’s meant to replace.
Part of the difficulty organizations face with SharePoint is both how big the problem is and how small the solution needs to be; that is, everyone, everywhere, across all organizations and across all SharePoint sites suffers the effects of a bad SharePoint environment, and the solution won’t come from sweeping organizational reforms, but from changes to how each person works with each document every single time they touch it.
Enough preliminaries: let’s dive in to what I’ve found to be the most effective ways to improve a SharePoint environment through changing how end-users work with documents on a daily basis. These are not technically complex, but they pose some challenges because they require a commitment from end-users to spend an additional 15-30 seconds during the document creation, upload or check-in process.
And although we all know that users are notoriously reluctant to spend any extra time at all during these activities, if you frame these in terms of the time folks waste looking for documents they can’t find (which end-users almost universally acknowledge is a significant time waster), you stand half a chance of getting folks on board for at least one of these -- and doing even just one of these consistently will have a huge impact on the overall quality of your SharePoint environment.
1. Begin Filenames with Document Type
Bad file names are probably the most significant problem for end-users in SharePoint today. They make it difficult to find information you’re looking for whether you’re using search, navigating through folders, or just hunting and pecking.
And while file naming is complex and requires a significant amount of effort to get 100% right at an organization, if you wanted to do one thing to improve your file naming, hands down it would be to begin all filenames with an indication of the document type, i.e., meeting minutes, project plan, purchase order, etc.
What each user puts into the file name after that is anyone’s guess. But imagine what it would be like if you could go into a document library and know, just by looking at the filename, what kind of document each document you saw was. And that’s precisely what you get if everyone takes the time to put the document type first in their file names:
Figure 1 – Standard File Naming Example
As you can see from this example, when you start file names with the document type, you increase findability by sorting -- and avoid having users open each document to determine what it is. And it’s pretty tolerant of things like misspellings (as long as you get the name fairly close) and wide variations in the rest of the file name.
Of course, to be successful with this, you need to decide on some document type naming standards, but at least within work groups or departments, there tends to be general consensus on file naming -- it’s just a matter of formalizing that consensus and encouraging folks to use it going forward when they work with documents in SharePoint.
2. Organize Your document Libraries with Top Level Folders That Map to Your Core Processes
Starting your file names with document type helps end-users who are looking for a specific kind of document. But what about those users who are looking for all documents relating to some entity, like a project, vendor or customer?
There are a few ways to enable this in SharePoint, depending on what these other entities are: you could attach metadata to each document that captures the information; you could also structure your site collections to segregate the content; or you could set up folders in your document libraries to do the same thing.
The first two require a lot of time to plan and execute effectively and would be generally accepted as best practices ways to allow users to find lots of documents related to a specific criteria. And this is precisely why you so rarely find them in play effectively in SharePoint environments.
The third is a quick and dirty way to accomplish the same thing -- you probably already use it in some degree in SharePoint or your shared drives today.
But what you’re likely not doing is using these folders in a coordinated way to make it easier for users to find documents. And while there’s not one best way to organize these folders for every group at every organization, if I had to pick one, it would tie them to the core processes your department or workgroup are involved in.
For finance, this might be something like AP, AR, GL, Departmental Budgeting; for a project management office, something like Projects, Research, Standards; or for marketing, something like Campaigns, Collateral, Agency Management. And so on.
For any department or workgroup, of course, you’ll also have some garbage-can categories like “misc” or “other” as well as plain old idiosyncratic ones like “Dave’s stuff” or “old” at the top level of the document library, but that’s okay. As long as you also have some official ones tied to your core processes (maybe even prefaced with “01.”, “02.” and so on), you’ll be much better off than you were before.
3. Use Minor and Major Version Numbers Consistently
If file naming seems like too big a hurdle for your end-users, maybe you’ll have more luck getting them to use major and minor version numbers consistently. Even if your file names are a dog’s breakfast of different conventions (or no conventions at all), consistent version numbering will allow anyone to quickly determine what the final version of any document is. And as a bonus, on the back end you can use consistent versioning to drive things like better search and records management, especially in 2010.
4. Use the Comments Field for Checking in Documents
And if using major and minor version numbers consistently also seems like too big a hurdle for your end-users, use the comments field instead. This free-form text field allows end-users to say anything they’d like about a document they’re uploading and attach it permanently to that version.
It can be useful for documenting things like the reasons for or main elements of a revision, the status of a document (draft, final, etc.), or the client, project, application, or other entity the document relates to.
I know some of you are likely saying, “Hey, there are much better ways to do this in SharePoint, like versioning (see #3 above) and metadata (see #5 below)!” Of course there are, but both of those require more thought and effort than the comments field, so you may have more luck getting something workable out of users with this route.
5. Choose Two Metadata Fields and Use Them Consistently
One last resort, and it’s more of a reality in 2010 than MOSS, is to get your end-users to use metadata more consistently. In saying this, I’m not suggesting a full-bore information architecture overhaul of your SharePoint metadata, but rather a quick and dirty approach: pick the two most important fields and use them consistently across all the relevant site and document libraries.
One thing to note: if users say that one of the metadata fields they want is document type, do this through file names instead (see #1) -- don’t waste one of your two metadata fields on it.
Instead, encourage them to pick things like project name, employee number, application name and so on, which, in conjunction with the document type captured by the file name, will give users a much greater ability to find the documents they’re looking for than they have now.
The Final Word
So there you have it: I’ve just added to the glut of SharePoint advice out there. But hopefully, in taking the lowest common denominator, quick and dirty approach, I’ve actually provided some advice you and your users can benefit from. Heaven knows, your SharePoint environment can probably use it!
And step up and chime in, not only with good old heckling of my ideas but with ideas of your own: I’d love to hear what folks out there are doing to improve how SharePoint works for them. So jump in, and let’s get the conversation started.
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