Friday, October 29, 2010

Folders, Metadata, SharePoint 2007, and SharePoint 2010

So you heard the news:  folders = bad in SharePoint land; but why?  We have spent the last 20 years putting things in electronic folders, the past hundred putting them in real folders in real filing cabinets....so why does SharePoint come along and say "folders:  the dodo was better"?  Well, let's talk about the reason we had folders, why we have them now, how they work today, and what can be done to improve the situation.

Physical Folders

So uh, a long time ago...people used paper.  Paper was this collection of ground up trees in a paste that is super flat and thin...when it dries, it's nifty to write on.  Writing is when we use a semi-permanent or permanent utensil to make marks on this paper...we would write what we now type...don't worry, you won't need to remember this.  When a bunch of this "paper" was used to gather information, they needed a way to organize it so that you could retrieve the information later (whenever someone asked or sued for it).  They decided they would use thick paper and bend it in half to hold several pieces of thin paper inside it...we would then mark it with useful information so we would know what was inside it.  We would stack these things called "folders" together, sometimes put them in big drawers called filing cabinets, and that was a great system till people realized that paper - being made of trees - was flammable and permeable by water....and, on top of that, it takes up a LOT of space.  Introduce electronic folders.

Electronic folders

So, we fast forward to the stone age when computers first began.  For a reference on how the first computers worked, google "The Flintstones" and try to find an old video that shows you this animated entertainment clip of life during this time.  We decide that paper is a thing of the past and decide that typing is the way to go (hooray for lefties around the world!  our handwriting is no longer an issue!).  We type up papers, resumes, and all sorts of stuff.  So, we have all these types of documents we type up for work, school, presentations, reports, etc...and the problem came back:  how do we organize this stuff?  We decided to transform a single, magical folder into the digital world where it replicated itself as the first virus to spread across the digital globe.  People started putting documents in these digital folders to help "organize" information.  Do you see the problem yet?  Still bunches of folders, still bunches of stuff, still dealing with a mentally-deficient chimp's method of organizing documents and you aren't allowed to change its methods.  People figured, "hey, this is digital...let's be bold and put folders INSIDE folders for better organization!"  Oh yea, we were that dumb.  So, going to find stuff really was just like regular folders:  took forever and you were at the mercy of who (or what)ever setup your folder structure.  We made really smart searching tools to let us peek inside folders faster, but the problem remained.  Bring in Metadata.

Metadata

The first concept of metadata is quite cool:  let's take all the important information ABOUT a document, and stick it somewhere so we look at THAT first instead of the folders.  We look through a stack of metadata really fast, find the paper we want, and it tells us where to find that paper.  You got it:  a catalog system...you know, like libraries....the place where they would but books....which were collections of paper bound together and forced you to read ALL of it to find that perfect page....yea, no iTunes for book chapters or phrases :(.  Anyway, this new metadata idea lets us keep our folders and all our stuff wherever - we just need to take a few notes about the document before we file it away in the black hole.  Doctor's offices use this a lot - they have color codes, name codes, and tons of shorthand written everywhere...so much so that there's a job and training just to decipher it!  The cool thing is, once you know the code, they would pack thousands of people's medical records into a space the size of your family room.  We would use this on electronic documents to make searches "faster".  Now comes SharePoint.

SharePoint

So, this metadata thing sounds cool, right?  Well, what if you end up in a doctor's office that held 100,000 people's information?  You'd still be looking at a lot of the same problem because you would have a LOT of metadata and THEN you'd have this massive mound of stuff to look through to find your document - even though you know where to look.  So, the way to solve this?  Instead of using folders - which HIDE information inside them till you look there - let's put everyone's information in giant stacks with the metadata sticking out on each document...and let's pretend that we can control gravity on each document so that, when we say we're looking for a purple tab, all the purples come together RIGHT in front of you.  Nifty huh?  That's what SharePoint wants to do for you.  In 2007, they let you make folders.  The only real reasons to make a folder are to separate stuff that needs unique security permissions (locked down folders) or if there's more than 5k items...then use folders to break down some of it into really big chunks...maybe.

The problem:  most people didn't know about metadata and still made electronic folders.  The SharePoint gods became disturbed and rained fire from Mount Despair on all such places - making them slow and difficult to use and making people forget that they do this everywhere else but SharePoint so that they complained to the Admins..err High Priests of SharePoint that they didn't do their job.  So, the evangelists of SharePoint are now proclaiming the wrath of the gods on folders...please, don't use them so you won't be burned.  You can choose not to believe in the SharePoint gods or the warnings of folders - but beware, SharePoint gods don't believe in folder athiests.  Use COLUMNS to ask for important information about documents and items when they go into lists and libraries...have 3 or 4 columns instead of folders.  You can search and filter by columns!  You can find whatever the heck you want super fast!  So, how has it changed in 2010?  NONE!  The only thing they did to make it easier on you folder lovers was to make it so that anything inside a folder got a special tag on it with a piece of metadata from the folder.  This way, every item automatically has some metadata - so poo on you if you don't want metadata, it WILL be branded on every item!  May the SharePoint gods smile on your learning; go, young padawan, and folder no more.