Part of the issue with poorly planned and laid out SharePoint sites likely stems from the problem that a lot of companies don’t truly understand just what SharePoint is; most Microsoft products are simple to understand the concept of; you want spreadsheets and calculations, use Excel, you want word processing, use Word, etc. SharePoint however isn’t a program, it is a platform and so requires a different thought process when understanding what it is and does. As a platform it can be broken down to two things; lists and libraries. That is all, at the end of the day, SharePoint is. A collection of lists and libraries. But what are they? A list is essentially a spreadsheet; rows and columns containing information. A library is similar but with a collection of documents and information about those documents. And that is what metadata is; information about something.
We have all used metadata, although many of us don’t realise what it is. Have you ever searched for a document by looking at the details in Windows Explorer view and sorting the modified date to the most recent? Or perhaps looking to buy something online you changed the price to low/high? That is using metadata; using the information about something to help you organise or refine a search. Or when creating a folder structure you have given the folders names to describe what documents will be stored in them.
So now you understand what metadata is; why is it so important to SharePoint and why do you need to plan for it?
For starters it is because metadata is part of what makes SharePoint effective. When metadata is carefully considered and incorporated into SharePoint, finding information becomes exceptionally easy. It also becomes more difficult to lose documents or other information. We have all misfiled a document and then spent hours looking for it, only to discover it was placed in the folder beside the one we wanted it in. When recording metadata there is of course the opportunity to record the wrong information; however if you are recording several fields of metadata it is highly unlikely that all will be recorded incorrectly, so the information remains findable.
But why not continue to use a folder structure as well? After all it looks much tidier and people are used to that way of working.
The issue with using folders in SharePoint is that the information becomes less findable. Views and filters are the best ways to search for information, however when folders are in place the views and filters won’t always look into those folders. So my metadata becomes essentially useless; workers spend time adding metadata that then cannot not be effectively used and the full functionality of SharePoint is ignored. If you want the information to appear tidier consider using groupings in your views. Also with folders, how do you file a document that relates to more than one folder? With metadata that isn’t an issue as you simply record the extra information and the information is findable against both metadata tags.
The best time to plan for metadata is at the beginning, although it is always a good idea to have a continual review process in place. Take a look at how files are currently stored, usually on a shared drive, and consider what information can be used to help with finding the information or is relevant to it. Then map it out and test it; check with a variety of documents before completing a full migration.
It’s a rare organisation where this type of change is implemented smoothly but if you do your homework, everyone will be happier in the long run.