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For many large organizations seeking to update and improve their content management strategy, Microsoft SharePoint provides an opportunity to "start fresh.” However, while SharePoint may overcome some of the limitations of legacy platforms, it is not a magic bullet. Without a fresh focus on information architecture and governance, old – and familiar – ways of doing things can easily carry over to the new environment. If that happens, you will simply replicate the same old issues that you experienced with file shares and legacy systems.
To help you avoid repeating past mistakes here are some considerations if you choose to move to SharePoint as your central platform for content management—and areas for enhancement to your existing systems.
Information silos will always exist at some level. Different groups and individuals generate information and are ultimately responsible for managing it. But you want everyone in the organization to be able to access the information they need to perform their jobs, without regard to where it originated, and you want everyone who accesses a piece of information to be working with the same version.
In the “bad old days,” folder permissions – set by the originating individual/group – governed who could see content and who was denied access. That model might have provided one level of control, however, it also brought unintended side effects. One of the reasons that people have been wary of the shared drive model with a folder hierarchy is that a simple implementation provides limited visibility to vital content across business units. Plus, if content is shared, say as an attachment in an email distribution, you almost certainly end up with multiple copies of the content – and different versions of the content across repositories.
In SharePoint, you can easily have the same lack of clarity and visibility if you don't have a consistent information lifecycle, along with processes to support it. People will gravitate to their familiar processes and apply them to SharePoint repositories. Likewise, IT will still be interested in minimizing privileges and permissions as a best practice for information security.
Establishing consistent lifecycle management across your organization’s content provides the control that IT is seeking, as does taking advantage of features offered by third-party add-ins for SharePoint. One such feature is the capability to create regulated copies of content while protecting the parent – copies that follow the lifecycle rules of the parent. So you can populate content wherever it needs to be, but in a managed way.
Manual processes are error prone, and often unreliable. With our shared drives, we relied on individual users to upload files to the correct file folder, disseminate a copy to the groups that needed it, and when a document changed, ensure that those changes were propagated to all the individual, repository-specific copies – that is if the user even knew where all the copies were.
That model depended on someone tracking the document and communicating to others all the time. Inevitably, the ball would get dropped and we had different versions of content in circulation, and no longer a single source of truth on a given topic.
Out-of-the-box SharePoint likewise requires a lot of user effort. When you move to SharePoint, you have a central library, but for that to be effective, your users need to be consistently applying metadata to content. That can involve something like twenty clicks to upload a file and then fill in text boxes with the needed metadata – another opportunity for error.
On the other hand, when you automate the upload of content and application of metadata – again taking advantage of available SharePoint add-ins – you can eliminate a source of errors. And by defining rule-based workflows triggered by metadata values, we can further automate needed information management processes – like automating the creation/management of regulated copies of content that we talked about earlier.
In these ways, we get the benefit of the central library acting as the central source of truth for the organization, while requiring as little of the end user as possible.
Without clear retention guidelines, businesses will always be afraid to delete anything. The general impulse when it comes to storing important content is to keep it safe, but keep it forever. This clutter degrades performance and impedes content findability.
Just as was the case with shared drives, overfull, unorganized SharePoint sites quickly become useless. If we’re not quite sure what our data retention requirements are, and how to dispose of documents in accord with legal and risk considerations, then content accumulates and the organization has a glut of data that no longer has any value to the organization, and may actually introduce risk.
An add-in with simple retention and policy definition automates the decision making around when files should be archived or deleted, ensuring that your business will have access to the right files and be able to find them quickly. Out-of-the-box SharePoint provides some of the building blocks, but especially for enterprise deployments with thousands of sites, a variety of configuration settings and customizations must be made by someone who is familiar with SharePoint administration and retention policies.
Fortunately, third-party add-ins exist that greatly facilitate the scalable implementation of records management and retention policies in SharePoint. For example, records management dashboards enable you to manage information lifecycle policy and disposition instructions centrally, and apply them coherently across the whole organization. Content type inheritance enables controls to be applied consistently and enforced transparently.
A key takeaway here is that, in order to avoid past mistakes and achieve a successful implementation of SharePoint for content management, you need to take a consciously different approach and do some advance planning. Take a cue from those who have done it before.
In a 2016 AIIM survey of SharePoint professionals, when asked to identify “lessons learned” from their SharePoint projects, over two-thirds of respondents said “Don’t just leave it to IT” and more than half advised to “Set out your information governance policies first, then match to SharePoint,” along with “Be sure to understand the implications of metadata and taxonomy.”
Switching platforms is not enough. For information governance to be effective, you must understand your needs, your platform, and your users. How these three interact will determine your success.