Over the last few decades, I’ve used many different types and brands of computers. I can still remember when I got my first one – it was a Sinclair ZX-81 – and my parents soon regretted the purchase because it monopolized our family TV set whenever I used it. While many things have changed in computers since then – from hardware, through operating systems, to storage – one thing has persevered: folders. Even now, decades later, folders are still commonly used to organize content. But, are they a relic from the past and is there still a place for them in the modern workplace? In this article, I will review the usage of folders in SharePoint, explore the reasons why they are discouraged and show you great alternatives to folders.
Regardless of the operating system and the implementation of folders, a folder is basically an empty container used in the file system. Users can easily add elements to folders such as sub-folders and files. In most cases, specific access permissions can be applied to folders. Since folders have existed for so long, we all are very familiar with them and use them intuitively on all of our devices and systems. Modern cloud-based environments – like SharePoint Online – also provide folders. They might be implemented differently under the hood, but the usage is almost the same.
If you are using SharePoint Online and Office 365, you may have heard recommendations to avoid using folders, and in my talks, I usually recommend avoiding folders as well. There are a lot of different options for when you want to phase out folders, and I’ve compiled them here to give you a one-stop guide to organizing SharePoint content.
Why do users continue using folders in SharePoint?
Before examining any options to reduce folders, let’s first look at SharePoint Online and the reasons why people continue to use folders. Here are some common use cases for SharePoint folders:
1. File share migration
Many organizations these days are migrating from corporate file shares to SharePoint Online. As a consultant, I am glad they do, because file shares don’t constitute a modern work environment. However, when corporate content is migrated from a file share to SharePoint Online, many users still think Folders. It’s what they are used to and it’s easy to imagine that switching to a different method of organizing content can be challenging as it requires a change of habit.
2. Lack of training and/or user-adoption
Some employees continue to use folders because they don’t know any better. Not all employees are tech-savvy or enjoy figuring things on their own. If nobody is telling them that there are different (and potentially better) methods for organizing content, why would users change their ways?
3. Established processes
Certain organizational departments (like Finance or Legal) tend to follow the same established processes for years, likely taking advantage of folders. For them, turning away from a dedicated folder structure requires altering their internal processes.
4. There are no better options for a specific use-case
Although I tell my clients to avoid folders whenever possible, I must admit that there are a few very specific use cases, where folders come in handy. Some reasons I have seen with customers include:
- Metadata used to group content is by far too complex.
- Temporarily grouping documents.
- Assigning custom permissions to a specific set of documents.
- Using external systems which rely on folders.
Why are experts discouraging the use of folders in SharePoint?
While there are many reasons why using folders in SharePoint Online isn’t a good idea, the following five are the most significant:
The URL length in SharePoint Online is limited to 400 characters, and any folder will add against this limit. Moving files from one folder to another will change the file’s URL will inadvertendly break links. Sometimes, documents can’t even be moved, because the new URL would exceed the limit.
To be honest, usability is my major concern. People can easily get lost in a nested folder structure. When a user navigates to the third or even the fourth level of folders, they quickly get lost. In addition, a nested folder structure is often the reason for an unintentional duplication of files because it’s easy for users to pick the wrong folder when uploading a file. What’s more, documents stored within a nested folder structure can cause confusion when listed in search results. The following example shows that only the folder navigation bar displayed next to the library’s name provides a glimpse of the current folder nesting level.
A folder structure applied to a document library is what I like to call a hard-coded structure. Once users have created a nested folder structure within a document library, it is hard to change it. In most cases, this requires shifting documents from one folder to another or even moving a sub-folder. If you were ever tasked with changing an established folder structure in SharePoint, you know what I mean. Changing metadata tags is so much easier!
Some users utilize folders in SharePoint to apply a customized set of permissions to specific files. Here is an example. A fictitious finance department stores all of its documents in a document library. However, access to some of the documents has to be limited to the department lead and the executives. So, the finance departament creates a folder with customized permissions to store those documents. If done in exceptional cases, this can be a viable option, but typically managing custom permissions in many folders quickly becomes a security nightmare that may lead to security breaches.
One of the strengths of humans is to repeat and improve on what others did before. This also holds true for using folders. If a group of users starts to use folders and builds a folder structure, it is likely that other users will copy that approach without looking at better options. Often, this is called a bandwagon effect.
What are the alternatives to SharePoint folders?
Phasing out SharePoint folders requires considering internal structures and altering the way your organization works with content. While changes are often seen as disruptive to the daily business of employees, an organization that migrates to a modern work environment (like Office 365), should opt to leverage its benefits. Unfortunately, organizations won’t realize the gains from a modern digital workspace if the users continue operating as they did with the ancient technologies. That’s where user adoption campaigns come in to help employees adapt to change.
Use multiple document libraries/lists
Modern site templates in SharePoint usually provision just a single document library, but there is no reason why there couldn’t be multiple document libraries hosted within a site. In other words, don’t save all documents to a single document library. How? Let’s go back to the fictitious finance department from my previous example. Rather than adding a folder to the library, why not create a second document library meant exclusively for documents accessible by the department lead and the executives? This doesn’t take more time than creating a folder but provides a much clearer internal structure and reduces management efforts. The following image shows what this can look like on a modern Communication Site:
Use multiple sites
This suggestion is similar to the one above – this time, rather than adding a document library, we create a new site and link both sites via a hub-site. With this approach, you will be able to separate documents based on access policies, topics or target audiences. Instead of creating an internal structure within a site, think of broadening your structure by using multiple sites (i.e. Site Collections, not sub-sites). This approach would be my first choice if many additional document libraries are needed within a single site or if content has to be separated on a more global scale. Looking at our fictitious finance department example again, this approach would give us a site for common finance documents and an additional site for documents shared with the executives. As usual, managing access permissions can be done at the site level.
Folders are often used to group documents by topic, content or target audience. Rather than creating an internal folder structure, I recommend using Managed Metadata. Managed Metadata can be used to provide views within a document library allowing users to filter documents quickly. Certainly, this approach requires some planning of corporate metadata and content types, but in return, it offers many benefits such as improvements to search, LOB applications (e.g. workflows), and document management. The following image shows how this can look like:
Use document sets
Document sets are likely the most underrated feature in SharePoint. What are document sets? Think of them as a small containers for documents similar to the common file folder we use in offices to file printed sheets of paper. Although document sets are often used for the same purpose, they provide many additional benefits when compared to a folder.
Here is a quick list of benefits of document sets:
- They let you define a list of allowed content types,
- Metadata can be inherited from the document set to documents,
- Welcome page can be used to provide an overview of the intended usage of the document set.
Those benefits allow organizations to ensure that corporate governance policies are followed. Folders do not provide these benefits at all. The good news is that document sets are available with modern sites and soon they will offer even better experience as they are currently being modernized. The following image shows the modern experience of a document set:
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want my clients to get rid of folders in document libraries and lists completely. Folders are not a bad thing per se and there are certain cases where it makes sense to stick with them. On the other hand, I encourage my clients to think of alternatives which offer better user experience and increased efficiency. I want my clients to put their existing routines, procedures and structure to the test and to actively work on alternatives that align with a modern digital workplace. Based on my experiences, usually there are better options out there than staying with ancient folders.
Changing established habits takes effort, and in the case of SharePoint folders, the effort is well worth it.
Going back to my initial question “Are folders in SharePoint Ancient Technology”? Yes, they are! They are an obstacle to using modern technology efficiently and quite honestly, an excuse to not think about alternatives. However, in the rare scenarios where the use cases have been vetted and folders were deemed to be the best option, there is nothing wrong with using them on a limited basis.