Life without folders – SharePoint 2010

For a generation now we have been using folders on network drives, in home computers, and in email systems, to categorise and store digital content. We now do it in the cloud too.

They are a hard habit to break because they make so much sense.

Almost everyone in work today uses folders to categorise, store and retrieve digital content. The extensive use of folders in drives and email systems has presented significant challenges for records managers, both in the management of the records contained in them as well as the implementation of recordkeeping systems.

Let’s be clear – users love being able to categorise information in a way that makes sense.

It’s hard to imagine life without folders. Or is it? The last time I looked, one of the biggest social media systems in the world, Facebook, didn’t offer folders.

What are folders, really?

But folders are no more than a virtual construct, like containers in almost every recordkeeping systems. What you see on the screen is a folder (or directory) or container, but it isn’t a real folder like a physical folder that contains paper documents. Documents that appear to exist within a virtual folder include a pointer to the folder in their system-generated metadata.

Folders in SharePoint 2010

The primary way to group digital content in SharePoint 2010 is by storing them in document libraries. Document libraries are the highest level of aggregation possible so, in a way, they are similar to the highest level folders in a network drive.

In almost all cases, the initial, instinctive user reaction to a document library is to want to categorise the content using folders. Newly created, out of the box, document libraries include the ability to create folders, just like on network drives, and so many users start to replicate the structure of their network drives, or copy the entire content from the network drives across the the library using the ‘Open with Windows Explorer’ option.

But, very quickly, users discover that folders in SharePoint libraries have no navigation clues, no way of knowing if you should navigate up or down to find content. Before long, enthusiasm wanes in the trough of disillusionment and users go back to using network drives and the SharePoint site becomes a ghost town.

SharePoint’s neat little trick – making folders vanish

As noted earlier, folders are no more than a virtual construct. In SharePoint, users can make the folders disappear by creating a view (or modifying the existing one) to change the ‘Folders’ setting from ‘Folders’ to ‘Flat’ to show all items without folders.

As soon as the user clicks OK after changing this setting, all the folders vanish and only the documents stored in the folder structure appear. (Note, this does not work in libraries with Document Sets because Document Sets are regarded as documents, and so both appear).

With careful guidance, and subject to the volume of documents in the library, users may then query whether folders are even necessary. Or they may ask if there are alternatives (yes, categorisation or document sets).

In my own experience, once they see how to work without folders, users seem to quickly abandon the previously strongly held belief that folders are the best way to categorise documents and use either categorisation or document sets instead.

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