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SharePoint Information Architecture: An Evolution

During product and service engagements, our clients often ask us a lot of good questions about SharePoint and Office 365. Some of the most frequent ones I hear in my role include, “How does my information architecture look?” or “Can you show me the best way to architect my information in SharePoint so end users can find the resources they need easily and quickly?”

Even in the age of the cloud, SharePoint information architecture remains very important to administrators and users alike, and the way it’s dealt with changes significantly with each new version of the platform. A poorly architected solution can make everyone’s work and use of SharePoint more challenging.

Before we can address the customers’ questions, though, we must first understand what SharePoint information architecture is, how it has evolved with each SharePoint release (including SharePoint Online), and – perhaps even more controversially –  ask if there is any purpose to the concept now in the modern era of social and analytics features like Office Delve.

What is SharePoint information architecture?

In the world of SharePoint, information architecture can generally be described as the structural design of information from the top level down and may consist of several layers, including:

  • Site Collections and Sites – This is where content is stored in a structural way. For example, your Human Resource business unit might have a site collection and each sub-team (Recruitment, Payroll, Work Health and Safety, etc.) might be provisioned its own team site. Within this structure you would find all information related to HR.
  • Taxonomy Term Store and Term Sets – To ensure there is a formal classification system, your information manager would create taxonomies based on the business function and activity. For example, in the HR (function) term store there could be a term set called ‘Type of Travel’ (activity) with metadata such as domestic or international.
  • Site Columns and Content Types – Reusable structured content should be considered as this will maintain data consistency across your organisation. Continuing with the above example, HR requires each staff member who travels to complete a travel policy document and to state their travel type. In this scenario, HR can create a document library with the travel policy as a document content type and a managed metadata site column called ‘Travel Type’ which links back the term set ‘Type of Travel’.

To complete the above scenario, an out-of-the-box workflow might be implemented, but workflows are not typically considered as a part of information architecture. Rather, workflows are a way of distributing information. For example, HR has a requirement for all completed travel policies to be approved by the staff member’s manager. To achieve this, HR can use SharePoint’s out-of-the-box Approval workflow and configure the recipient to be the staff member’s manager. Upon receiving the workflow task, the manager will have the option to either approve or reject the request.

How has SharePoint information architecture evolved?

Let’s take a step back to the earlier versions of SharePoint – say the three earliest iterations (2001, 2003 and 2007).  As a content management system, it allowed user to work collaboratively with a solid security model. Enterprises embraced SharePoint and used it for both their intranets and extranets. However, just like any system, if you pump in data without a meaningful information architecture, it can become difficult for users to find what they need.

There have been numerous research reports on ‘information overload’ within the workplace with many of them concluding the average worker spends a considerable amount of time finding the information they require. Here are some articles I came across with a quick search:

Information architecture in SharePoint 2007

With SharePoint 2007, there was Enterprise Search – the first step in helping you find relevant information without going through site maps or browsing site contents in a time-consuming way. There still wasn’t much you could do if users input data without a proper information architecture. If the organisation went through a restructure and/or business units changed, it would have created multiple administrative tasks for site owners such as updating the site navigation menus and perhaps any customised search scopes to ensure the correct indexed content was returned.

Information architecture in SharePoint 2010

Microsoft was aware of this pain, because with the release of SharePoint 2010, the term store was introduced along with the concept of managed metadata navigation. Managed metadata navigation provided a consistent global navigation which made finding information easier. The social features ‘Tags & Notes’ and ‘I Like It’ button provided a way of telling others how relevant or interesting a piece of information was.

Information architecture in SharePoint 2013/2016

In the more recent versions of SharePoint (2013/2016), the additional social features of ‘Share’ and ‘Follow’ provided users the ability to start referring colleagues to information that is most relevant to them. Although the problem of “information overload” is not entirely resolved, the discovery of information is now much easier.

What about Office 365/SharePoint Online?

As shared in Microsoft’s recent ‘The Future Of SharePoint’ event, there are enhancements to the SharePoint information architecture model. As an example, when a SharePoint Online site is created, a corresponding Office 365 Group will be provisioned (and vice versa) with both content sources residing within the same managed path. The benefit of this is it provides a consistency to where the information will reside.

However, there might also be challenges to your organisation depending on how Office 365 Groups are used. For example, if you enable the external users feature, will this cause a data integrity issue? What if the wrong metadata is applied so users searching for a particular term cannot discover the correct content? This is where I believe metadata will only become more important, and we need to continually realign the structural design of information as SharePoint Online evolves.

On the flip side, Microsoft has made data discovery more user centric. With the next set of emerging technologies based on analytics and user behaviour, SharePoint Online, in conjunction with Office Delve, is now making search an autonomous experience. Why search for information when Delve knows what is (or might) be relevant to you so it surfaces the appropriate content? For example, if you are working on a project plan, chances are Delve (via Office Graph) will work out the linkages and relationship to other project documents and display them as items of interest.

Does information architecture still matter?

With the new capabilities in Office 365 and SharePoint Online, does this mean information architecture will cease to be valuable and relevant to organisations? The answer is no. Rather than seeing it as a disruptive force to information architecture, I see it more as a complementary solution.

Information is only going to be as relevant as you make it. If you take out the SharePoint element and think of a file system, one would imagine you won’t find a drive containing hundreds of thousands of files without a meaningful folder structure. Similarly for SharePoint, this goes back to the information architecture layers and it might involve governance along the way. Depending on business needs, an organisation could start by understanding data classification and metadata that is relevant in order to build up the structure. Information architecture can be seen as a tree – the stronger it is at the base, the healthier it will become over time.

How can I improve my SharePoint information architecture?

Information architecture can be seen as a design. To implement it is all about governance. For some organisations, governance might come in the form of a document containing a set of processes, policies, and business rules.

The challenge of making governance work is ensuring people follow it. To address this issue, consider implementing an automated solution which can pre-define processes and policies so requests can be completed with minimal input from the end user. For example, when an end user submits a site creation request form, the associated workflow process will started in the background. As the process links to a pre-defined policy, the next step is to automatically identify the end user’s department and provision the site under the correct managed path structure.

What’s next?

Want to learn more about how AvePoint technologies that can help your organisation manage governance and information management? Visit our product page to learn more about how DocAve Governance Automation helps you develop your information architecture according to how your business works.

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