Data that describes Data
SharePoint makes it possible to build a site that all of your users can manage and customize for almost any purpose. Not only does SharePoint make it possible, it also makes it extremely easy for users to create, change, and share documents. How you choose to organize the structure for each given site depends on many different factors, such as the size of the site, the amount of users it will have, and what the needs are for the people who use it. Basically, you can customize it to fit whatever business needs you may have. Sounds great right? It is great, but at the same time, the fact that different people from different departments at different stages of the documents life-cycle can access documents, opens the door for human error.
HR department employees think differently than I.T. employees, I.T. employees think differently then accounting dept. employees, and the examples go on & on. An auditor may associate a document with who worked on it last, but a sales rep will likely associate the same document with the customer information it contains. Subsequently, they interact with the documents according to these associations. They may end up changing important information, saving it under a different name, or even deleting the document before it has completed its life-cycle through the other departments.
This article explores the concept of metadata: the data that describes your data. Being that this is essentially the lifeblood of any successful business, we will also provide some guidance on how to organize your metadata so that it works seamlessly through the various departments that deal with it.
In this article:
- What is metadata?
- Organizing and controlling metadata.
- Plan and create Content Types
- Plan and create workflows
- Search for documents using Columns & Content Types
Metadata = Columns
So what is metadata? Well, believe it or not, when it comes to designing sites in SharePoint, it’s probably your best friend. It has been said that metadata can be best understood as “data about data”. An easier way to think about metadata is to think of metadata as the attributes of an object. Let’s take a music CD as an example. Attributes of the CD could include the title, artist, release date, genre, and bar-code number. All of these attributes would be the “metadata” of the CD.
In SharePoint, metadata can be described as the data about the documents, or any properties that describe the attributes of the document. In such a case, you will actually see the metadata in a SharePoint document library. SharePoint actually captures certain per-determined metadata by default, such as document title, document type, last modified date etc. . These are displayed in SharePoint as columns. Therefore, metadata is also equivalent to and may often be referred to as columns in the SharePoint environment. If there is metadata that you wish to search by that is not included in the default, you also have the option to make customized columns.
So what makes metadata so important? Well, the simple answer is this: if we did not have metadata, we would have no way to describe, search for, or differentiate any of our SharePoint documents. Obviously, we can’t find it if we can’t describe it, right? Lets say we want to access a document called “legal contracts”. You search under the word “legal” because you know that the metadata associated with this document will bring it up under that search. We can even take it a step further, and discover that the metadata associated with this document also blocks you from opening the document due to the sensitive legal information that it contains. This way, since you cant access the document, you won’t see the sensitive legal information, your boss won’t be upset with you for accessing top secret company data, you get to keep your job, and the document remains safe untouched. When metadata is managed correctly, everybody wins. Without control and organization of metadata, it is likely that things will not work out so well for those same users. The control and organization of metadata will rely heavily on workflows, which we do not cover in this article. For more on workflows, check out this article: “Workflows that Actually Work.”
Controlling and organizing Metadata
Metadata provides keywords that describe the content of a document, whether it’s for tagging blog posts, photos, or folders. This allows for ease and efficiency of search. This way, when a user goes to search for a report called: employee discount under the keyword employee, everything tagged with that data will show up in the search, including employee forms, employee policies, and who to contact in regard to employees. *It should be noted that, without proper Governance of your site, your metadata will not be utilized properly. For more information on Governance, read the article that precedes this one: “Govern your Governance.”
By managing metadata (or columns), an organization can make it easier for its members to find the content they are looking for when they need it. The fact that it does so easily, and without overburdening them during the creation process is one of the key factors that make SharePoint work seamlessly between separate departments that use the same documents. The management of your data will also include the mastering of content types, but they will not be discussed in this article. To hear more about Content Types, read the follow up article “Make your life Easier with Content Types.”
Here are some useful tips for managing your metadata in SharePoint:
#1 – Be Descriptive. Every time you create a new column, fill in the Description field describing the information you’re asking for as definitively as possible. The more contexts you give your users for the metadata, the more likely it is they will enter information correctly. In other words, when you are at the creation level, make sure metadata provides an alternative description for your data. For example, when uploading a document, you should use descriptions such as Author, Date, Topic, Department, and Expiration Date. All of these descriptions of your metadata will make it easier to group for viewing, or to find in searches.
#2 – Always spell check your metadata. I know that this sounds fairly obvious, but users are great at creating data with typos. When this happens in Document Information Panels, (or really anywhere else for that matter) it usually leads to DISASTER. The biggest and most prevalent issue is that when metadata is misspelled & then applied to documents, those documents are in effect “hidden” from search engines. That definitely spells trouble, pun intended.
#3 – Keep lists short. When referring to lists, we are talking about the choices that are made available to users as a Menu, Drop-Down, Check-boxes, or Radio Buttons. For the sake of your users, keep this list to a 4-6, and if necessary use 8-10 maximum.
#4 – Differentiate Columns with similar attributes: Define Columns that contain overlapping attributes decisively. Columns that have the similar defining attributes can cause confusion for your users. For example, what’s the difference between Author, Contributor, Publisher and Source? Depending on the company, they might mean similar or completely different things. Decide what describes your metadata the most conclusively, and then refer to #1.
#5 – Create Subsets: If necessary, create a subset of a Column that extends the main set above. For example, Category, Keywords and Subject may contain more descriptive metadata than the main set, but they are harder to define. Often times, these types of Columns overlap in many ways. Choose one (e.g. Category) and use that for more descriptive metadata. *Remember to keep the subset lists as short as possible.
#6 – Build Views. Metadata can be used to build views that are specific to designated teams or departments. If you do not choose the default (View: All Documents), you can customize views by associating them with columns that you have already created. If a user only views documents that deal with accounting, then why burden them with documents from sales, HR, IT, legal, and inventory? With their own specified View, they can deal with the documents that they need to deal with without the clutter of irrelevant data constantly popping up.
Creating a Look-up List & a Custom Column
Often times, you will want columns that you create to represent metadata that is uniquely meaningful to your organization. When this is the case, you will do well to record this information as the documents are created. Creating Custom Columns can capture this unique Metadata, and organize it in a way that benefits users tremendously when it comes to searching for specific documents. A good example of this is when a user wants to know what employee last opened a document, and what department it is associated with.
In the example below, we will create a look-up list, and a custom column.
Create a Look-up List
1. Select “Lists” from the side menu
2. Click “create” in the top menu bar
3. Filter by: Lists
Now you see the default choices for the different types of lists that SharePoint provides.
4. Choose “Custom List”
4. In the details pain click “Custom List” *see figure 1
5. Enter a “Document Types” as the name of the Custom List
6. Click create to create a the list
7. In the Ribbon click List
8. In the List Ribbon click List Settings (far right side)
9. Scroll down to the Columns section
10. Click on the title column
11. Rename the title column to Document Type (Type over the text “Title”)
12. Click OK
13. Click Create Columns
14. Type Document Type Description as the column name
15. Click OK
Step 2 – Create a new site column Look-up column to show the values from the document type list
1. Click site actions > Site Settings
2. In the Gallery Section click Site Columns
3. Click Create
4. Enter Document Type as the column name
5. Select Look-up as the type of information in this column
6. In the group section either choose and existing group or create a new group to categorize your new column (this will make it easier to find later)
7. Require that this column contains information
8. Under get information from chose the Document Type list that we created earlier
9. Click OK
Step 3 – Add the new Document Type site column to a Document Library.
- Navigate to the document library that you want to add your look-up column to.
- In the ribbon click Library
- In the Library Ribbon Select Library Settings (far right side)
- In the columns section click add from existing site columns
- In the “Select Site Columns from:” drop down select the group that you created earlier (The one that will make it easier to find later)
- Select the Document Type columns we created earlier.
- Click OK
Step 4 – View Document Library
- In the breadcrumb trail click the Name of the document library.
- In the Ribbon click Document
- Click New (far left side)
- Notice in the Document Information panel there is now a field called document type.
This is a very simple example; however it can still be seen as a basic template to implement complex relational databases with Sharepoint lists. Creation of these lists and utilization of the concept is virtually guaranteed to decrease errors and work expenditure.
*Remember Content Types and Look-up Columns can be a bit tricky. Because of the relationships that may or may not be set up at the parent level, deleting a Column could easily mean deleting the content stored in that Column. If you want to delete a Column from a list, it is recommended that you write code that will explicitly allow this, since it means you’ll also lose any content that was stored in that column in the list.
Site columns and Content Types are the foundation of Information Architecture planning in Windows SharePoint. You should always use Content Types and Lookup columns to separate the definition of your content from the actual content. Whenever possible, you should reuse these definitions across the whole application, as well as other applications if you can customize them to do so. When you use these definitions, it eliminates the need to re-type your code every time you want to apply it, and it guarantees that there will be no typing errors at run-time.
Utilize these tools, and you can decrease rework and ensure consistency of metadata across sites and lists. Using Look-up columns and Content types can be tricky. Too much duplication of effort is typically done because of lack of planning before starting to build the infrastructure of a Site Collection. As long as you make the necessary effort in the beginning, you will find that the extra investment of time will help you immensely with management & maintenance of your SharePoint site & implementation.