Back in the early 1980’s Steve Winwood had his first solo hit with a song from which I took my title. “While you see a chance take it, find romance, fake it…” Steve was talking about love and romance, but that’s only because he wasn’t involved in an ECM project. If he had been, this song would have been about folders vs. metadata – I’m sure of that.
We like folders; they give us a visual sense of organization One major weakness of folders, the fact that you can only be looking in one at a time, both causes and hides the problem of duplication. Folders often lead to duplication because people like to have everything close at hand so they put copies of documents in multiple folders. We just never see the duplication unless we search across all folders. Let’s see, we want everything together, but we want a sense of organization – wait, at the risk of plagiarizing Owen Baern, isn’t this another one of those “the problem SharePoint solved” moments?
If you search the Web for “SharePoint Folders”, you will find many blog entries that talk about the danger of using folders, how folders should be forbidden and a few that acknowledge that sometimes, folders make sense. One of the reasons for using folders that shows up frequently is the fact that people understand how they work. Changing behavior is hard to do and eliminating folders seems to be right up there with Prohibition, but sometimes the moment is right to make the pitch for metadata. One of those moments occurred for us a couple of weeks ago.
We had a scenario that originally looked like a good place to use folders in SharePoint. OK, I’ll be honest, it never looked like a good place to use folders to me, but I gave into the “at least they are using SharePoint” argument and agreed. To be fair, I’m talking about outside users of an Internet facing site and most of them were seeing SharePoint for the first time. Making them comfortable was the first goal, and folders are the comfort food of storage. People see folders and the world looks right. What happened to change that? Well, one of those users had two types of content; in one he had too many files, in the other he had too many folders.
If you have 50 files, of type A, B and C in three folders, you feel good. When you have 500 files, things start to get complicated and folders start to break down. One problem will be the fact that A, B and C are probably no longer good enough for organization. There is probably an ‘A-B’, a “B.5” and a “C/d” type of document. There are also probably a lot of documents that are “A and Blue” and a lot of documents that are “B and Blue” and somebody wants to see “all the blue documents”. Another “folder-breaking” scenario is when you have 25 documents spread out through 10 folders. These scenarios are where folders crash and burn, and where metadata soars. Our customer was facing both scenarios, prompting him to say “I guess I’m going to be bouncing between folders a lot”. That’s when the old Steve Winwood song came to mind. I explained that we could utilize a SharePoint feature and give him organization and leave him free to roam all the documents in a single folder (yes, I mean “Library” but…). As we prepared to upload his documents, we discovered that folders, on a file share, actually do represent metadata. In this case, the heavily nested folder structure represented several metadata attributes. As we moved these files into SharePoint, we used the folder structure to set the value in three metadata columns and we ended up with a wonderfully useful library.
This story had a happy ending, and it gets even better. I would have been thrilled just being able to introduce metadata columns into a large block of content. But, in addition to that bit of good news, the content owner in our company stepped up and did the work (see previous post). Also, I found that one of my favorite SharePoint toolmakers, MetaVis, has a solution for automatically setting metadata from folder structures. I’ll have more to say about that in a future post, after we give that feature a huge workout.
After I finish the housekeeping around uploading this post, I think I’ll head out to iTunes – I think it’s time to scoop up a few songs off of “Arc of a Diver”