Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Great Metadata Debate

Dustin Miller kicked over the anthill when he ranted against subfolders in document libraries. Bil Simser concurs and stirred up some more dust with his post on the subject. Of course, some folks take exception to all this, preferring to do things the old-fashioned way, but the real question is: what good are subfolders, anyway? Do they help us categorize information? No, they do not. Do they help users find documents easier? Absolutely not. Are they intuitive? Not really. Do users know what to do with them? Ah, and there's the rub - users are comfortable with folders and they know how to use them. Now ain't that a bummer???

While Dustin and Bil are most certainly correct - metadata is by far the best way to categorize and display information in SharePoint - it turns out that there's a lot to be said for giving users something they're used to amidst a sea of change. Think about it for a minute: we toss around terms like 'metadata', 'lists', 'views', 'libraries', 'categories', 'content', 'areas', etc. like they're second nature to everyone but the truth is they only mean something to US. Your average user doesn't understand any of this and, what's worse, they don't even care. Here's a neat little trick - want to immediately turn a room full of professionals into a group of slack-jawed zombies? Use the word 'metadata' three times in one minute and see what happens. They instantly tune you out. I've seen it happen many times.

It may just be that we're asking people to digest more than they have an appetite for. Not only do they have to get used to all this SharePoint mumbo-jumbo but now they have to give up their folders too? For Pete's sake, it took them five years to learn what a network share is and now everything goes back into one directory? I swear I can hear the gears in their brains grinding to a halt when I get to this portion of the training.

Rarely do we have time to fully train (and re-train) every user before the new portal goes live. And even if we did, it's just too much for them to absorb. So we make a judgement call and weigh the options - do we have all these nice little categories that please our analytical minds or do we have immediately productive users? Every client I've ever had opts for the latter and rightly so - no organization can afford that much disruption.

Here's the other problem with metadata that nobody's talking about: it takes a lot of time to make it work right. Not only do we have to decide upon our categories but then we have to create lookups, add list definitions, modify views, group, sort, filter and generally yank, pull, twist, poke and wiggle until it all looks right. Then we need another library to do the same thing - but just a little bit different, of course - and we're at it again, like an army of SharePoint worker bees, buzzing around our little libraries being busy, busy, busy. Meanwhile the users are putting documents back into folders on the network 'cause that's what they know and all this SharePoint stuff is just too hard.

So what do we do? WE know metadata is good but user's don't. WE know it streamlines indexing and retrieval but they could care less. WE know folder structures are the worst way to organize information since, well, folder structures but nobody's listening. A bit of the ol' rock-and-a-hard-place, isn't it?

Well, here's an idea. Give 'em both. Give your users metadata AND folders. Let 'em store stuff the way they always have (at least for now) but also enforce metadata rules. Create standard list definitions and views for each document library that contain all the basic metadata fields that map directly to Word/Excel/etc. so they can fill out the fields in Office and don't have to fiddle with web forms (if you haven't done that yet, you're missing the boat. Read this immediately). Customize the base defs/views only when you have to. Let users upload docs into whatever folder structure they desire until it comes time to ween them off; say six months, or even a year, when they can hear 'metadata' without their eyes glazing over. You can always move the docs out of folders and into the base library later on (I know, I know, some links will be broken but your views will still be intact).

In other words, feed them the elephant one bite at a time so they get used to the taste then invite them to the banquet. Users will be much happier and they'll actually stick with it since the new has now become the old. You'll still have a contingent of naysayers who'll put up a fight when it's time to yank their beloved folders out but by that time they'll be a distinct minority instead of a vocal majority. It'll save you a lot of headaches and them a lot of frustration. That's a win-win if I ever heard one.

UPDATE: For more on metadata and how to use it, see Ian Morrish's post on Sharepoint and metadata.

UPDATE 2: Daniel McPherson links back to an older post on the same subject. His real-life example is dead on.