This is a high level look at the suite of document management features built into SharePoint. These include its container based structure, document sets, search, MS Office integration, collaboration, traditional check-in/out, version control schemes, metadata, metadata defaults, archiving, security, document numbering, workflows.
I also touch on some of its key limitations and how they can be bypassed. In time all of the topics below will be expanded upon in blogs or articles.
SharePoint out of the box has all the core functionality a serious DM system needs, so before you try and bend SharePoint into a shape you think a DM system should have, I strongly recommend you develop a good understanding of how native SharePoint works. Your solution will benefit greatly from aligning as much as possible with SharePoint’s natural way of working. And if you need to do some things differently have a look at some of the third party add ons out there. MacroView and Colligo are two of a number of companies with a range of solutions on offer.
Container based structure
SharePoint is based around web sites which contain libraries of documents, and the libraries can be further divided up by folder hierarchies and document sets. Each node in the tree can be viewed in a web page, and with sites in particular, it is common to display summary information – e.g. newly added or recently edited documents, overall project information (if the site, library, or document set represents a project or matter).
Libraries are the primary document container with further division possible by folder and document set. At the library level navigation can be via the folder/document set hierarchy, or via metadata navigation which collates commonly tagged documents from anywhere within the library.
Document sets are a folder on steroids. Two very relevant uses in a DM context are:
- As a container for matter / project documents where common metadata is shared by all documents. This is because:
- changes to metadata on the document set are automatically applied to all the documents
- documents copied or moved to the document set automatically pick up the standard metadata
- as a container to manage a group of documents that are:
- based on a set of document templates
- need to be routed as a document set through a workflow – yes, SharePoint allows a document set to be part of a workflow.
SharePoint Search is seriously fast, and highly customisable
The web page nature of the SharePoint user interface allows custom (and context sensitive) search interfaces to be presented wherever relevant.
Direct integration with SharePoint is built into Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook including:
- navigation around the SharePoint sites and libraries
- saving just the changes back to the server, making SharePoint particularly usable when working over a slow internet connection
- metadata can be set & edited from within Word, Excel etc.
Collaboration or checkout/checkin, your choice
Libraries can be configured so that documents are automatically checked out (as per traditional DM) or so that multiple users can collaborate in real time on the same document. And yes, it works very well!
SharePoint has three levels of version control. Of these, the third is designed for formal DM
- No versions – saving a document overwrites the document
- Major versions only
- each editing session produces a new major version
- A limit on the number of major versions kept can be set
- Major & minor versions
- each editing session produces a new minor version(draft)
- the user decides when to “publish” a major version
- published “major” versions are locked
- the user can choose to keep a limited number of minor versions (or none).
- each editing session produces a new version
- if you make use of the Office XML formats, SharePoint only stores the differences between each version on the server, with great reductions in the amount of server space required
- users of traditional DM are often used to working with major versions only and controlling when a new version is created. Third party tools exist for replicating this effect (overwriting the current version), eg MacroView’s Advanced Office Integration (AOI).
- As well as the standard text, choice, lists, yes/no, and user metadata fields, metadata options can be sourced from external data, and even customised.
- “content types” allow different types of documents to be classified from different sets of metadata
- metadata defaults can be set at the library, folder and document set level.
Records Management – archiving, holds etc
SharePoint 2013 and above have a reasonable level of maturity in their Records management options. RM choices to make include dedicated Record centres versus in-place records management, various types of Hold. Workflows can finish with the document (or document set) being archived to the record centre. And much more.
SharePoint’s approach to security is hierarchical but nodes in a hierarchy (and even documents) can be set to “break” the inheritance and be closed off (or opened up).
When designing your SharePoint DM solution try to take advantage of SharePoint’s naturally hierarchical approach to security. It will make it faster as well as easier to manage.
SharePoint document numbering is a coordinate style numbering based on combining unique IDs for the parent container, document library, and document number within the list. For example xxx-ccc-1234.
Unique, sequential document numbering can be had through use of third party addins like MacroView’s Unique Document Numbering (UDN), or by writing your own numbering provider.
SharePoint has long been known for its abilities with form based workflows. These same techniques can be used to manage document publishing processes.
In my view SharePoints biggest weakness out of the box for enterprise document management is the browser user interface. While it works well for a few libraries, it isn’t so good for thousands of them. Also, the browser UI’s limitations have lead too many people into putting far too many documents in just a few libraries rather than taking advantage of the possibilities of a much wider tree structure.
To take advantage of the wide tree structure – e.g. to have a site (or site collection) per project, you really need a third party add on like MacroView DMF that is optimised for 100s or 1000s of sites or libraries at the same level. More on Enterprise design in the blogs on Design.