SharePoint Document Management Best Practices

To get the most out of SharePoint, your company needs a firm SharePoint document management plan in place. Convenience. Customization. Collaboration. More.

By Cathy Dew

Big Picture View Using SharePoint as Your Company Document Management System

Among many other things, SharePoint is a fantastic place to store and manage your company’s files. There is a reason that many businesses come to SharePoint first and foremost as a document management platform. Between storage capacity, convenience, customization, collaboration, and organization features, SharePoint is the perfect tool for corporate document management. To get the most out of SharePoint, though, your company needs to have a firm SharePoint document management plan in place.

Getting off on the Right Foot

Particularly when making the jump from a network file share (or even from a computer hard drive), enterprises make the mistake of not thinking very much about their SharePoint document management plan. Instead, they tend to do what is easy: migrate all the files and data from their network share into a single document library.

This strategy is not optimal for several reasons. First, and most pressingly, simply locating everything in one document library does not take advantage of the many organizational features that SharePoint offers for file management. The design of SharePoint encourages you to create a lot more hierarchy in your file management schema. This hierarchy breaks documents up into different categories and groups, making for a much more functional system.

Secondly, SharePoint offers a slew of other features—including managed metadata, content types, and custom views—designed to make file searching and discovery a lot easier. While some companies assume their work is done after they transfer files to SharePoint from a network file share, they’ve really only taken the first step. More configuration and fine tuning will ensure that end users will be able to find documents when they need them.

Think of it this way: if you were to organize all your company files in a physical filing cabinet, you would likely use dividers, alphabetization, and categories to make it easier to find everything. Similarly, when it comes to moving your company documents to a SharePoint Document Center, it’s important to get off on the right foot with a fully realized SharePoint document management plan.

Understanding the Structure

Before you start sketching out your document management plan, you’ll want to have a general structural idea in mind. How do you want to manage the hierarchy of your files? Usually, the Document Center will be the top level—either as its own site collection or the sub-site of a more extensive site collection. Beneath the Document Center, though, the structure will look something like this:

  • Document Libraries: You can have as many document libraries as you want, divided how you want them to be divided. You might have a different document library for each department of your business, or maybe for each separate client. These libraries can then be used to store everything related to those categories.
  • Folders: Within the document library, you might have folders to separate files further. For instance, in a document library for a specific department, you might have folders for all that department’s primary functions, or for the clients they service. Within a client document library, you might have different folders for each project you’ve done for that client, or individual folders for quotes, purchase orders, invoices, and so on.
  • Files: Each folder should store the files themselves, no matter what they are. Every document in a folder should be somewhat related, whether because they share a document type or because they link back to the same client account.

A few extra tips here:

First, on the folder level, the best practice is to keep the folder structure flat. Said another way, you do not want to use sub-folders for your SharePoint document management system. One layer of broad-category folders within a broader-category document library is fine. This kind of structure is self-explanatory and helps to break documents apart a little better. Without folders, each document library would just be a mess of hundreds or thousands of files, which can get confusing.

On the other hand, sub-folders can also get confusing. Sure, you probably use a tiered folder structure on your personal laptop or desktop computer. This kind of arrangement is the default organizational method in both Windows and Mac operating systems. The problem is that a tiered folder structure usually only makes sense to the person who creates it. When you have dozens or hundreds of end users who are going to be using the same document management plan in search for files, you need to have something more universal. A flat folder structure is the only way to do that.

Second, you can use custom views to explore the same document library in different ways. Custom views let you change the sort order of documents and folders, display or hide certain columns, or filter the information in specific ways. Views essentially allow you to make sure your document library organization is everything to everyone. One team might benefit from a certain filtered view, while another might need to see column information that isn’t relevant to anyone else. By creating and saving multiple views, you turn your document library into something that everyone can experience in the way that is best for their needs.

Using Permissions to Govern the Security of Your Document Management System

As the administrator for a SharePoint site, library, or list, you have the option to modify permissions for different content. While you might trust your employees with all the data stored in your Document Center, it is still a smart idea to implement permissions. Permissions restrict certain documents to the people who actually need to access them. They are an effective means of protecting more “sensitive” information and minimizing the number of people who have access to it. They also can prevent a situation where someone is editing a file when they really shouldn’t be.

With permissions in a Document Center site, you essentially have two options: configure permissions by Document Center or by document library. By default, SharePoint is set up so that sites and libraries inherit permissions according to structural hierarchy. So, if you decide to set up permissions at the Document Center library, those permissions are going to be applied to every document library, folder, and file.

At minimum, a user will have Read Only/Visitor access to the entire Document Center. In other words, all users with permissions to access the Document Center will be able to open every file in every library and folder in the hierarchy. Users won’t necessarily be able to edit the content of every file, but they will be able to access the information.

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In SharePoint, on the folder level, the best practice is to keep the doc folder structure flat.

You can, of course, revoke these automatic permissions manually. For instance, you might prefer to grant permissions by document library. That way, you can keep better track of who is accessing/editing what. You can also make it so that people only have access to the files that are relevant to the department they are a part of or the client accounts on which they are working..

You can also break the inheritance of permissions lower down, like by the folder or file. Usually, though, you will want to avoid this approach. Just like tiered folder structures, broken permissions get confusing. It’s too easy to forget who has access to what and way too much work to go through and grant individual permissions to every single file or folder. Repeatedly breaking permissions, via nested folders will also slow down your SharePoint site and impact usability.

Using Content Types for Navigation

The final part of your SharePoint document management plan will typically involve the configuration of content types. Content types are crucial to organizing and searching your document management system. They are a managed metadata tool that you can essentially use to govern how users tag and classify new files when uploading them to a Document Center or library.

Each content type is a reusable group of columns that you can apply to a specific type of file, such as an invoice or expense report. When a user uploads a new file into the system, he or she is asked to specify the content type. Once chosen, the content type determines which metadata columns need to be filled in for the document in question. The user cannot continue uploading the file without inputting metadata in each of the requested columns.

This system ensures that every file has metadata information that is consistent with other files of its type. For instance, invoices might link to specific departments or client accounts. The Invoice content type, then, would include columns for those pieces of information. Later, users would be able to use each column for meta navigation and file discovery. Someone would easily be able to find the invoice in question based on client, department, date, or other meta columns.

Get Help with Your SharePoint Document Management Plan

If you need help configuring your Document Center, document libraries, folders, and files into a system that is intuitive and effective, 2Plus2 can lend a hand. Schedule a consultation today to talk about your SharePoint document management plan. Go online to schedule a free consultation with our team or call 510-652-7700 today.

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Cathy Dew
Cathy Dew – CEO + Information Architect
Cathy focuses the company on our mission – Real results. Every time. Information architect and strategist, Cathy is passionate about making software work well – the function, the feel, the result.
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