Note: A correction was made to this post on 20 July 2019, relating to if a document library contains mandatory metadata.
Perhaps the single most common complaint about using electronic document management (EDM) systems over the last two decades has been the requirement to save a copy of a record stored on a network file share to the EDM system.
Network file shares are littered with documents, many of them duplicated in other locations, on personal drives (and removable drives), and attached to email messages. Some of these documents may also have been saved in the EDM system.
It is a known fact that legal discovery activities rarely focus solely on the records in an EDM system, no matter how good that system may be. As long as network file shares (and personal drives) have existed (and continue to exist) alongside EDM systems, the latter has always been the poorer sibling in terms of information value.
Various attempts over the years by EDM vendors to ‘integrate’ their products with network file shares (often via WebDAV – see below) have rarely been successful not the least because the folder structure of the network file share is inevitably more useful and flexible than the often rigid structure of the EDM.
*WebDAV, or ‘Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning’ (RFC 4918) is ‘an extension to HTTP, the protocol that web-browsers and web servers use to communicate with each other’. WebDAV facilitates collaborative authoring, editing and file management. The most common usage of WebDAV is to map cloud storage as a network drive. (Source: WebDAV: What it is, where it turns up, and its alternatives, retrieved 18 July 2019)
The old ‘Groove-y’ way
Microsoft Office Groove 2007, or ‘Groove’, was a Microsoft Office component that used WebDAV to synchronise with a SharePoint library, allowing the library to be opened from Windows Explorer. (Source: Understanding and troubleshooting the SharePoint Files tool in Groove 2007, retrieved 18 July 2019)
While this method worked, it was clumsy and difficult to use. Duplication on network file shares continued.
2018 – The new OneDrive for Business sync client
The previous Groove OneDrive for Business sync client (Groove.exe) was included with the Windows 10 Operating System that was released in mid 2015.
The new SharePoint Online became widely available from 2016 and has continued to evolve. Initially, it was only possible to synchronise a SharePoint Online document library using WebDAV methods.
The new OneDrive sync client (OneDrive.exe), also known as the Next Generation Sync Client (NGSC), appeared in early 2018. The new sync client allowed users (with Windows 10 devices) to sync their SharePoint document libraries to File Explorer.
A mostly unnoticed but significant change
The sync option on SharePoint document libraries (in addition to OneDrive and OneDrive for Business) is possibly one of the least noticed changes that has the potential to have – ironically – both a major and also minor impact on the way people work.
It is a minor impact because – provided the synced document library does not have mandatory metadata (see below) – the change effectively allows users to continue working the way they always have, in File Explorer, going only to SharePoint Online when they need to.
It is a major impact because, coupled with the ability to ‘share’ content easily (directly from File Explorer), the potential for duplication – except for the duplication between ‘work’ and ‘personal’ spaces – has been removed. Everyone with access to it can sync the same document library and multiple people can work on documents in the library at the same time.
Instead of creating a ‘working’ document on a drive and perhaps emailing it to everyone, there now only needs to be a single copy that multiple people can access – via File Explorer, at the same time. Everyone with access can see when any other person is editing.
That is, end users can continue to work in File Explorer, the way they have always done. In that sense, the ability to sync a document libraries makes redundant the need to open a browser and access SharePoint that way. (This in turn impacts on the way change is managed and perhaps how each SharePoint site might be configured).
How it works
As a start it should be emphasized that this works best with Windows 10 as Windows 7 devices may still have the old ‘Groove’ client installed.
Please note also that this only works if there is no mandatory metadata on the document library. If there is, the users will be unable to add new content to the synced library, or edit existing documents. See below for more information.
Users need to go to the SharePoint site first and click on the library they want to sync. Users need to have edit rights on the library to sync it.
They should then see the Sync option:
The OneDrive for Business client notifies the user that the library will be synced.
The library is then synced to the user’s File Explorer.
Note: If the document library has any mandatory metadata, the user will be notified via a pop-up that the library has been synced in ‘read only’ mode.
A new icon (with the Office 365 tenant name) appears on the left, and each document library that is synced is shown as a folder beneath it.
If the document library has any mandatory metadata columns OR the library requires check out (via Versioning settings), an additional ‘lock’ appears to the right of the sync status. This means the documents cannot be edited and new documents cannot be added. (Source: Sync SharePoint files with the new OneDrive sync client)
If neither condition applies, end users can work directly in the synced document library in File Explorer, including adding new folders and documents.
End users may also select which folders they wish to sync either by opening a folder in SharePoint and syncing from there, or by right clicking on the folder that was synced, clicking on ‘Settings’ and removing any unwanted folders. This, of course, could mean that users don’t see new folders they really should see and may as a result attempt to create one with the same name (which will be rejected).
Documents are not downloaded to the user’s computer until they open them. This can be seen below in the first document with a circle/tick icon (downloaded) and the three others with cloud icons (not downloaded).
The user can right-click and use the Share option (the same as in SharePoint Online) to share the document with colleagues which (as long as the person sharing has the permission to do so) gives the other person access if they didn’t have it before. The three dots at the top right of the dialogue box provide the option to manage access to the document.
Note: End users cannot copy and paste a link to sync a library, the sync runs from a user’s computer and is personal to their log on and their device.
End user reactions
Personal experience supporting thousands of end-users with access to SharePoint Onine indicated that this was perhaps one of the most useful features ever released.
Several people noted that they regarded the sync option as a ‘cloud-based backup’. Some indicated that they rarely returned to the browser version of SharePoint for their key document libraries (which may be problem).
What about metadata and content types?
Presently, document libraries synced to File Explorer do not display any metadata associated with the document or document library, only the icon, name, date, type and size.
However, Microsoft Office documents (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) retain any original metadata in the document properties (the ‘metadata payload’) and these properties may be changed on the document itself via the ‘File’ option.
Any metadata columns are also ignored; a user may add a document directly to the synced document library in File Explorer without having to add metadata. Note that this is the same behavior in SharePoint Online; if a document is added to a library with a metadata column, a warning appears (see screenshot below) but the document can still be uploaded. (This paragraph was corrected on 20 July 2019 to remove reference to mandatory columns, which make the synced library read only).
Note also that new options coming soon to SharePoint Online, which will also be seen via the ‘Share’ option in File Explorer, is the ability to set restrictions such as the ability to print or download, or expiry dates.
The new way of working
The old way of working was to create and manage documents on network file shares and personal drives, emailing copies as required. Adding documents to EDM systems was an additional and disliked step that in most cases created a copy of a document that still remained on a drive somewhere. (And, in many cases, the EDM system had a linked file share where the documents were stored).
The new way of working minimises the need for duplication.
- Users create a new Office document (including directly from OneDrive or SharePoint, where it is automatically saved in the library from which it was created)
- If the document was not created from OneDrive or SharePoint, the ‘save’ dialogue presents the following locations by default: OneDrive (personal); SharePoint (any SharePoint site the user has access to – including the synced document library on File Explorer); or ‘browse’ to another location.
- If the document is saved to the synced document library in File Explorer, it is then automatically copied to the SharePoint Online document library (and a green circle and tick appears).
- If the document is saved to a SharePoint Online library directly, it will appear in a synced folder in File Explorer initially with a cloud icon.
- The document may then be shared, either from File Explorer or in SharePoint Online (the same Share dialogue on both).
- The recipient of the Share invitation can then open the document directly and edit it (if given those rights).
- Any edits of the document will be recorded in the version history of the document. Other actions (e.g., changes to security) will be recorded in the audit logs.
However, if the library contains any mandatory metadata, the synced library will read only.
One document, stored in a single location, accessed by many. A new, much smarter, way of working.