Since Microsoft SharePoint’s initial steps into the Document Management (DM) space in 2001 right through to the current iteration in Office 365, the debate about whether SharePoint can be used for effective enterprise DM has only grown more intense.
For advocates of SharePoint, they see it as the platform which offers the most multifaceted enterprise DM experience and the clearest vision for future technological and business growth. SharePoint is the solution that bridges the gap between the functionality of traditional DM solutions with key industry trends such as enterprise social networking and cloud computing.
Detractors struggle with SharePoint because they question if the broad range of functionality it offers fits with the specific needs of their business. Organizations with strict requirements and compliance needs around document and information management such as law firms, professional services firms, and finance and accounting businesses traditionally have used solutions they see as more tailored to their business.
Those in the industry who have had experience with different enterprise DM solutions have come to understand that the challenges SharePoint faces do not exist in its broad range of features nor underlying technology. Rather, SharePoint suffers with two core perception issues which were both caused by a lack of maturity in early implementations.
Initially, SharePoint implementations were not treated as a first class citizens within an organization’s infrastructure, leading to challenges at both the infrastructure and application management levels. As SharePoint the product and the market themselves have matured, solutions and methods have been developed that deal directly with this challenge.
The focus of this article, however, is on the second issue: Implementations of SharePoint document management solutions that don’t appropriately leverage the available technology to meet business wants and needs often fail. In this article we will focus on six key components of a SharePoint document management solution and how they can be utilized.
A successful enterprise DM solution in SharePoint has four key building blocks, and two underlying principles.
- Out of the Box SharePoint features
- Provisioning & Lifecycle Management
- Information Architecture
Out of the Box SharePoint features
Out of the Box (OOTB) SharePoint features are the backbone of SharePoint implementations. These are the components with which the end users interact when they use the solution. However, simply understanding what the features do is only a small part of the question. Understanding of how they fit together and how they shape the experience for the end user is the differentiator between good and great solutions.
The key features we think about when looking at DM are:
- Sites and Site Templates
- Lists and List Templates
- Libraries and Library Templates
- Columns and Site Columns
- Content Types and the Content Type Hub
- Metadata, Managed Metadata
- Check-in and out
- Document ID’s
- Security Groups & Permissions
- Retention & Retention Schedules
- Records, Record Sites, and Record Declaration
- Workflows & Document Approval
The list above is not exhaustive. You may find for your business that you need to focus on some items, while others are of less relevance. The skill of implementing OOTB features is not just using each one heavily, but knowing how to fit the components together in a seamless solution.
To make this concept easier to understand we can take a simple example, such as a matter workspaces – a central place for all documents and communication relating to a specific matter are stored – for a law firm. In this example we will look at the SharePoint components we need to use together to deliver the functionality needed.
Starting at a base level, the law firm may have 15 different departments which create matters, leading us to create one site collection for each department, and a site for each matter. This logic is represented below.
Inside a specific matter, there might be different groups of documents, such as “Client Communications”, “Contracts”, “Resourcing”, “Reports”, and “General Documents”. Documents might have different types, such as “Advice”, “Contract or Agreement”, “Email”, “Letter of Fax”, “Report”, “Minutes”, and “Agenda”, with each document type having its own unique set of properties. This may lead to the creation of five libraries within each matter, and the association of the seven SharePoint content types to each of the libraries as shown below.
Other factors must also be considered: users may also require permissions to be set in a unique way for each matter (Site level), versioning may be required, co-authoring or document checkout, unique document ID’s – each of these features are available but must be configured.
These requirements take us to the next level of thinking. We need sites, libraries, content types, and site columns for properties as shown above, but we also need uniform use of these features across our solution. This means the implementation of managed metadata for centralized management of document properties and terms, a content type hub to enable the publishing and central management of site columns, and content types across all site collections. Templates also need to be created for sites and libraries to avoid manual work and potential for human error in our matter workspace creation process.
Each of these features in isolation provides no significant value, but the understanding and leveraging of all does. A few pointers to help when implementing these features are:
1. Use content types, but not too many
Content types are great for helping to define properties for a type of document and for document classification. They support search and fast navigation of SharePoint information. However, many implementations suffer from too much of a good thing. End users don’t like filling out metadata, and they don’t like questions impeding them from uploading documents into the system. Limit this frustration by limiting the number of content available in any situation to five to seven.
2. Use properties (metadata), but once again not too many
Similar to the use of content types, too many properties within a content type provides the same challenge. It is better to get two pieces of good information than asking for 20 that don’t get filled out. Limit the number of fields a user must fill out to five to seven unless the user is a librarian, records manager, or there is a very specific need.
3. Look to use defaults
Popular content types can be set as default in a library. Metadata fields can also have defaults which can be set for the context the document is being uploaded into. Using defaults can help you get more metadata applied to your documents to support things such as document retrieval and search.
4. Make user options contextual
Just as every document property (metadata field) is not required for every document type (content type), not every matter requires every library, or not every library requires every content type. Designing a solution that is contextual for business users goes a long way to improving perception of the solution and increasing user adoption, along with improving productivity.
5. Most of all, “Design for filing”
Designing an DM solution is as much about delivering usability as it is functionality. When making implementation choices it is important to put yourselves in the shoes of a user. By doing this, when you reach technical decisions where there is no clear answer, understanding how to make the system faster and easier is an excellent way of deciding what to do next. The system should be designed to help people save and retrieve data above any other objective.
Provisioning and Lifecycle Management
Previously we have acknowledged that base SharePoint functionality is the backbone of any DM solution. However, it is important to understand that, for many businesses, OOTB features alone still can leave significant gaps in delivering an end-to-end solution. Large scale implementations especially face challenges such as volume and variation of demand.
In fact, the ability to uniformly create, bring users into, and dispose of SharePoint workspaces is one of the most common fundamental challenges I’ve seen when delivering enterprise level SharePoint solutions.
To understand this challenge we need to break it down to it two key components:
- How to quickly create workspaces that are uniform and meet user needs.
- How we manage the lifecycle of the objects we create.
Configuring OOTB components to deliver the functionality needed in SharePoint is actually very simple. Once an administrator understands the user interface, there is quite a low barrier of entry for SharePoint power users and generic SharePoint administration. The problem is that hands-on workspace configuration and administration does not scale well.
It is still very common in the industry for SharePoint workspace (site or site collection) request processes to consist of users sending an email to a help desk, and then support staff spending an hour or more configuring a site to meet the user’s request. Besides being a time burden, this also increases risk of human error and constraints on our ability to respond to business needs in a timely manner. This example becomes entirely untenable for enterprise implementations. Large or high volume businesses using a site for each “project” or “matter” may need to create hundreds or even thousands of sites per year.
The out of the box “Save site as a Template” feature in the SharePoint user interface (UI) can help by allowing administrators to preconfigure settings and speed up the provisioning process. However, these templates can’t be used across site collections, which is required to meet scalability needs of large businesses. The next logical step is creating custom templates using Visual Studio that give you both control and scalability. Visual Studio templates, although excellent, do have some drawbacks. They can introduce rigidity in both managing ongoing changes in business needs, and adapting to specific user requests.
This means that the focus of the workspace provisioning process needs to be both on the templates that are being used, and the processes in which they are being leveraged. If during the request process you are able to capture details such as:
- The type of workspace you need and what you need to use it for
- The security or permissions you need
- The constraints around the information in the workspace (think retention and compliance)
Then a complete provisioning process can use a base template that pulls together the required SharePoint features, and adapts the implementation of that specific workspace for each individual use case.
Think of a request process driving workspace creation that can pick a specific site template, set permissions, and add or remove specific features based on end user need. This process could then be provided directly to end users, without the need for manual administrator actions. In specific situations, provisioning could be based on actions taken by end users in other systems, which will be discussed later in this article.
The second part of this section is the lifecycle management and disposition of SharePoint workspaces. We have all heard of SharePoint implementations that have grown without restraint, and presented an ongoing nightmare for administrators. By shifting the focus of our DM implementation to speeding up provisioning and delivering service to end users, we need to provide appropriate checks and balances to ensure a streamlined SharePoint solution.
Centralized reporting and management of created workspaces is something that can provide a significant amount of value for DM / document management solutions. By recording the provisioning of workspaces and providing a central index of key workspace information, administrators gain insight into their document management environment and become able to check, track, and act on key activities. Being able to know how many workspaces are out there, who is creating them, and what they are being used for is essential in helping to plan infrastructure and understand how demands may change in a fluctuating business environment.
Balance can be added to the workspace creation process by binding appropriate retention schedules and disposition processes to documents and workspaces at the time of provisioning. If we know at the point of creation how long a project is likely to run, we can configure automatic archiving or deletion of the workspace based on business rules. If we can understand the compliance needs of an organization, we can automatically destroy records at an appropriate point after a matter or project is closed.
To learn how AvePoint helps to automate provisioning and lifecycle management processes, please visit the DocAve Governance Automation product page.
Search has been one of the hottest topics in the SharePoint space since the announcement of FAST integration into SharePoint 2013 search a couple of years ago. The virtues of continuous crawling, document previews, upgraded UI, better scalability, and lists of additional features have been the subject of heavy discussion and documentation. Rather than listing each new features we should focus on the core issue: The lack of focus placed on search in relation to the rest of the project has often limited the value it can deliver to the business.
We have become dependent on the power of search to overcome the deficiencies caused by not investing appropriate time or resources in their search implementation. Great value can be gained from looking at SharePoint search as one of the core components of your DM solution as well as deciding how to configure document management related search in comparison to other search actions in SharePoint such as people or social interactions.
The last key building block of an enterprise document management is the area where we can create additional value in SharePoint DM solutions: integration. By integrating the platform with other “back end” or line of business systems, SharePoint can become easier to use and deliver more complex requirements.
Simple integration points, such as integrating with CRM, opportunity management, or practice management systems can tie directly into the lifecycle solutions discussed earlier. Client, matter, or project workspaces can be incepted when new items are added other key systems via triggers or workflows connected to SharePoint. Workspaces can also be closed or archived based on project status or client stats external to the DM system without placing extra onus on end users or system administrators to make requests or perform actions.
Tighter integration can also connect resource management, project management, or financial information into SharePoint sites, enabling employees to access the documents they are working on along with live project or matter information. Add in the multifaceted collaboration features provided by SharePoint, and a well-designed DM system can easily become the backbone of the way your organization works.
Learn about how AvePoint’s SharePoint integration solutions can help your users integrate content from file shares or collaborate on Box content through SharePoint by visiting our product page.
On the other side of integration, more “front-end” connectivity between SharePoint and core client applications such as Microsoft Office can increase user efficiency and speed up adoption. A key example is email and its changed role in businesses. Not every item that needs to go into a DM system is a traditional document. Emails contain important interactions such as advice, project decisions, intellectual property, costs, and even contracts. Storing and sharing these emails is just as important as any word document or PDF. SharePoint and Outlook are two of Microsoft’s best-selling business solutions, but there are no real integration points between them. Introducing third-party products that integrate the two systems can ease the process of saving and uploading from Outlook and other core Office applications and help with user adoption.
There are also apps available that feature integration between the two systems, including AvePoint Meetings and its ability to allow users to create and manage meetings from both SharePoint and Outlook.
Information architecture is the underlying principle used to make many of the structural decisions in a SharePoint DM solution. Simply put, information architecture (IA) is the art and science of organizing your business data in a way that is logical (easy to find) and extensible (able to cope with future growth or business changes). When creating information architectures, you take into account items such as the data, the people using it, and the content of the data’s use.
In SharePoint ECM, a well thought out IA helps us make choices on how to combine the main SharePoint components to deliver the solution. Items such as the numbers of web applications, site collections, sites, content types, and metadata are all decisions that are made as a result of the IA creation process.
Looking at this is it easy to see that IA is heavily tied to the first of our keys to DM, out of the box SharePoint components, but it still has importance for our other building blocks. Search design and integration points should all be decided upon in relation to the way people need to find and use business information.
For a more in depth look at IA, please see a recent post by Director of AvePoint Client Services Randy Williams.
Governance is the term we use to describe the way in which we place controls around the way the user works and the system grows. If IA is the engine of your DM system, governance is the steering wheel and brakes that ensure you stay on course.
Experience has shown us that everyone talks about governance, and the creation of governance policies is common throughout the industry. The challenge with governance is not in the creation of the ideas and policies, but the method and manner of implementation.
The most common characteristic of good governance policies for end users is that they are transparent. When a governance policy is not obstructive nor obtrusive to the way in which an employee works, yet still places appropriate control, it is successful. The objective should be to create an “illusion of freedom” for the user, where employees believe they are working in a way that fits for them, even though they are working in the manner you dictate.
Effective implementation is about binding key governance policy choices to the way you design your DM. Provisioning and lifecycle management should be a key area of focus for hands on implementation of governance. Connecting inception processes with disposition processes and workspace types with unique business needs is the core way to shift governance activities from reactive to proactive.
SharePoint has come a long way since its initial entrance into the DM space more than a decade ago. As a platform, its potential to deliver DM functionality has expanded to the point where it offers all of the features of traditional DM solutions. This capability is combined with enterprise social networking, search, big data, and cloud-ready features that can allow your DM solution to deliver more than any other competitor in the space. The keys to achieving this are understanding the core building blocks and principles for a SharePoint DM implementation, and how to leverage these to deliver a platform that meets your business needs. SharePoint is a core item in the Microsoft stack, it is a core item in Microsoft’s cloud strategy, and with an understanding of these concepts it can become a core system that helps your business be more productive than ever before.
To learn more about we can help you maximize your DM initiatives and enable enterprise collaboration through SharePoint with our infrastructure management, data governance, and compliance solutions, be sure to visit our website today.