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SharePoint Document Management System: How to use it?

If your company's archives are not collaborative and still rely on a folder-based system, you have a big problem. Because without the support of an intelligent document management platform, you are fighting against business procedures. And you are losing.

With SharePoint, you can turn that around. So in this article, we will look at how to use SharePoint Online's features to manage the entire enterprise document lifecycle, from creating a public site to configuring document libraries.

SharePoint Document Management System:
Why should you use it?

This is a good question, and also one we are frequently asked.

That's why we decided to give a conclusive answer in this article, exploring the peculiarities of a document management system, along with the aspects to consider to create a truly effective one.

Effective, to keep under control the number of documents, files and content that any business has to produce to survive in the market and secure its growth there. Because bureaucracy is a necessary evil; but it's only an evil when you don't have the right tool to govern it.

For us, SharePoint from Microsoft 365 is that tool.

What is intranet.ai?

intranet.ai is the ready-to-use corporate intranet, designed to reduce costs and implementation times, thus creating a collaborative and modern digital work environment:

  • Initial price of 3,650 €/year for a complete intranet
  • 50+ applications, including advanced search, document management system, push notifications via Teams, personal profile, and FAQ pages
  • 100% integrated with SharePoint Online and Microsoft 365

 

SharePoint Document Management System,
and the lifecycle of a document

To substantiate our answer to the initial question, we must first clarify the purpose of a company's document management system.

Far from being a mere archive, a document management system serves to control the entire life cycle of each document it contains. Specifically, we could say that the life of a document consists of 4 main phases:

  1. Creation.
  2. Collaboration.
  3. Cataloging.
  4. Conservation VS Elimination.

Creation seems like a clear concept; however, it is a step that hides some complexity, as it is not enough to simply open a file and fill it with content and information to obtain a useful digital document.

On the contrary, one of the advantages in digitizing one's archives is precisely the possibility of adding contextual information to simplify their management.

To this end, SharePoint allows you to use particular content information (Content Type) to define in each document:

  • the owner;
  • the creation and last edit date;
  • the target user group;
  • the permission level required to access the file;
  • the version;
  • the current status, such as "draft," "published," or "approved."

and the list continues, branching out into various and possible custom labels.

The function of this information is to give a logical and consistent structure to the documents, so that they are organized by categories from the moment they are created.

Translated: no more folders divided by theme.

In addition, this information also makes it possible to index the contents of a file, thus helping users find the documents they need without wasting time browsing through the local folders on their PCs or the pages that make up the company website.

There would be more details to add, but we will talk more about that later, when we address the third phase.

So let's move on to the second: collaboration.


Collaboration represents a more structured step in the life of a document.

Indeed, it includes several sub-steps, such as co-writing, revision and approval, which intersect with each other and may depend on the actions of a conspicuous as well as varied audience of users.

A good document management system must make communication and file exchange fluid, both between the people involved and between the platforms on which documents must move to be compiled.

Just imagine having to collaborate with colleagues in your company. Until recently, the process was more or less as follows:

  1. The file was created.
  2. One would duplicate it, often to a personal USB stick.
  3. The flash drive was given to the recipient person, who would download the contents to his or her pc.
  4. The file was edited locally.
  5. One would have to return to step 2 and continue like this until the end.

This is all very unhandy, especially if we think about data security issues, but the arrival of cloud platforms has turned the paradigm on its head and allowed effective communication between people and applications to be built into this scenario. And not only that.

The cloud revolution has boosted remote working, paving the way for real-time collaboration on files from any device and location.

At this point, you might be wondering what the difference is between a cloud platform like SharePoint Online and a competing product like Google Drive or Dropbox.

Both free people from the shackles of a desk and a single device on which to save and edit work content; however, Microsoft's tool has better cards to show.

Suffice it to say that SharePoint has 2 advantages that differentiate it from other products:

  1. Deep integration with the Microsoft 365 suite, making it possible to co-create and save an Excel, Word and PPT files directly from SharePoint. Ergo, users communicate and work on documents in sync and without ever leaving their digital workspace.

  2. Microsoft security protocols extend throughout the entire work environment, down to individual documents stored in SharePoint. In particular, data are protected by encryption and multi-level permissions systems, which control their sharing and access by users at any time.

In addition to these features, there are numerous other capabilities that your company could leverage to improve its relationship with its documents.

Again through integration with Microsoft's technologies, you can tie Power Automate workflows to SharePoint collections. For example, you could automate repetitive tasks such as archiving attachments to your e-mails or requesting approval for new files placed in a shared library.

 

For more information, we recommend reading our article on
the most useful Power Automate flows for SharePoint Online.

 

One last interesting feature worth mentioning is that related to "versioning" and change history.

With SharePoint, you can in fact access all versions of your current documents to compare the results of changes made by users with access to the file and see if the work is progressing in the right direction. If it isn't, you could always decide to restore an earlier version so you don't have to waste time editing the file or, even worse, start from scratch.

Useful, isn't it?

Now that we have delved into the second phase in the life cycle of a document (which we might call the most important one), let's see how SharePoint relates to the third and fourth.


We have already seen how the contextual information offered by SharePoint plays a crucial role in cataloging documents in a digital repository.

Let us briefly review the key concepts:

  • Users can specify context data (metadata), which will be used to catalog files without using folders.

  • Metadata is indexed so that users can find the documents they need using SharePoint's search bar directly.

In addition to this, contextual information is used to customize workflows related to document collections and control access to their content.

Based on the metadata entered to define the document type, the authoring user, and its expiration date, Power Automate will perform different tasks. For example, if the document falls into the "HR" category, the approval request will be directed to the HR manager(s) rather than to his or her counterpart in Administration.

The same logic applies to a myriad of situations, such as sending a custom notification to a particular group of Teams or storing a file in a particular site library.

On the security side, metadata can be used to give users permission to edit, review, or simply view the contents of a file or an entire library.

In this way, permissions granted at the tenant or site level are tailored to the needs of departments and individual teams, which may need to control access to their documents in a more granular way.

We thus close the third phase to move on to the fourth and final phase, which is the permanent archiving of a document versus its total deletion.

Let's see what features SharePoint offers to manage both.


Unfortunately, there is not much to say about how to store permanently your documents in SharePoint, other than to add the small note of creating a library to house files that have outlived their usefulness.

Particular attention should then be paid to the division into categories and the space occupied in storage.

The former fulfills a mere tidiness requirement; the latter, on the other hand, must be carefully evaluated, since SharePoint, while a tool famous for its scalability, has its limitations.

Specifically, it has a total space of about 25TB, while storage for individual items corresponds to 250GB.

Once these limits are exceeded, either the system blocks the loading of new content or it starts to give performance problems.

For this reason, the advice is to plan a lifecycle that includes the deletion of that data that, perhaps due to old age, will no longer come in handy.

Now, if the reasons we have presented have persuaded, or at least intrigued you to use SharePoint as a platform to manage your business documents, it will be useful to see together how to configure it for that goal.

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Using SharePoint as a Document Management System: Which aspects to consider?

In the previous chapter, we saw how a document management system serves to control the life cycle of the documents it contains.

Unraveling this concept even further, we might add that a well-done management system makes it clear to users:

  • What content they can upload to the archives.
  • What template is appropriate to use for each type of document.
  • What metadata should be defined in collections.
  • Where to store files at each stage of their life.
  • How to control access to documents and libraries.
  • How to share files securely, both with users inside and outside the organization.

Focusing on SharePoint again, we emphasize that its features are designed to put into practice all the points in this list. For example, it allows you to define and enforce information management policies, which are useful for controlling access and how files are shared.

But let's look in detail at what aspects to pay attention to when your company decides to adopt SharePoint as its document manager.

Identify target users

Generally speaking, target users are those who will be involved in one or more stages of the business document life cycle. They may or may not belong to the organization, or have different roles within it.

Specifically, we can divide the target into the following categories:

  • Who is in charge of creating a certain type of document.
  • Who makes the changes.
  • Who approves.
  • Who is to consume or use the final document.
  • Who is in charge of designing the site, including navigation and the archives it hosts.
  • Who is to define the management policies.
  • Who maintains the servers where the data is stored.

All of these people are the ones your management system must satisfy.

To achieve this goal, it is critical to think about how the archives will be used, identifying:

  • The types of documents most frequently created;
  • the purpose they are intended to serve;
  • the end users for whom they are intended (team members or customers?);
  • the format of the files, which may change from one phase to the next;
  • the roles that are needed to run the cycle, between owners, contributors, editors and approvers;
  • the position that documents will occupy as they move from one phase to the next.

The advice is to draw a concise map that not only includes these elements but also highlights the relationship that exists between them that will affect the use of the repositories.

All of this will help in understanding how to set up the navigation of a SharePoint site, as well as the structure and number of its libraries, and the policies that will need to be applied.

Setup the libraries

Libraries are the center of SharePoint activities, since they are the very space where a site's content and documents are compiled, shared and published.

They are therefore our repositories.

To configure them properly, we must first establish their priority.

If the focus of the site is a particular project team, the primary function to be performed will be to make collaboration between users as easy and smooth as possible. Consequently, the collection will include a system of permissions and policies that is not too restricted, unless outside people are to be called in to contribute.

As we saw earlier, it is possible to manage access to information in two ways:

  1. Assign permits at the tenant or site level.
  2. Use metadata to specify users who can edit, or only view, individual documents or files in an entire library.

Of course, you can always combine these options to create the system best suited to the needs of your target audience.

After that, you must consider the possible transfer of documents from one repository to another, especially when the latter is located on a different SharePoint site.

This could happen when an internally produced file needs to be reviewed or approved by users outside the company. Such as vendors, for example.

Therefore, it would be wise to plan a space where the document can be shared without jeopardizing its privacy and without wasting time sending it to platforms outside one's work environment. Otherwise, real-time collaboration, the best benefit brought by the cloud revolution, would be lost.

To avoid these inconveniences, you could plan to set up a stand-alone site in your tenant, where team members and vendors contributing to the project would gather.

In this way, the document would move smoothly from one location to another, keeping its data security and integrations with the surrounding Microsoft environment intact.

Use the attributes

By "attributes," we mean the information that characterizes the elements of a library and, yes, they include the contextual data (metadata) we discussed extensively in the last chapter.

However, built-in automation flows, information management policies, and repository customizations also fall under SharePoint attributes.

These elements are important for creating templates to apply to an entire collection.

If your company uses a particular type of contract with its suppliers, for example, you could build a template with the necessary metadata and automation, perhaps for review and signing. Once ready, the template would be included directly in the SharePoint library. But it doesn't end there.

Thanks to the evergreen integration with Microsoft 365, SharePoint will also share the customized template with Word.

Define the policy

Although policies belong to attributes, their importance makes them deserve a separate space.

Defining a policy means determining how long a document can be kept on file, but it also means keeping track of the users who have access to the file and what actions they take concerning it.

Needless to say, policies are therefore needed to comply with information privacy regulations, especially when it comes to:

  • Data retention.
  • Information sharing.
  • Labeling, or the requirement to specify the properties of individual documents.
  • Traceability.

The SharePoint mechanisms related to the first three points are now clear, between using metadata, managing permissions, and deleting content from a site.

Next, let's talk about the fourth point, which is the need to track documents in one's corporate archives. To this end, SharePoint allows you to create a specific identifier for each file, which can be represented by an actual barcode. Users can then obtain a code to insert as an image within individual documents.

To enforce policies, they must first be enabled at the server level by the members of your responsible IT department. After that, the admins of the tenant or a SharePoint site can define, import or export the necessary policies, in the form of attributes, to the libraries.

Below, we present a summary table with the main functionalities of SharePoint Online as a document manager that we have seen so far:

 

SharePoint functionality as a document manager

 

SharePoint functionality Feature description
Document creation SharePoint allows the creation of digital documents with contextual information and specific attributes for their management.
Collaboration Facilitates real-time collaboration in document creation, review and approval, eliminating the need to share physical files or use external means.
File cataloging Uses metadata to catalog and organize documents, enabling efficient and customized searching.
Controlled content preservation Defines document retention policies, managing how long documents are kept and who has access, while complying with information privacy regulations.
Integration with Microsoft 365 Allows co-creation and editing of Excel, Word and PowerPoint files directly from SharePoint.
Data security Provides security protocols including encryption and multilevel permissions to protect documents and control user access.
Automation Enables automation of repetitive tasks through integration with Power Automate, such as archiving documents attached to emails or managing document approval.
Versioning Facilitates access to all document versions to compare changes and restore previous versions if necessary.
Target User Identification Allows you to identify and define the roles of users who will participate in different stages of the document lifecycle.
Configuring libraries
Libraries are key spaces for organizing and sharing documents, and SharePoint allows them to be configured according to the collaboration and security needs of each user or team.
Policy setting and tracking Establishes document retention, access, and tracking policies to comply with privacy regulations and information tracking.

SharePoint Document Management System:
How to configure it?

Let's get to the heart of the matter and now see how you can configure the system to manage your company's documents with SharePoint Online.

This process can be summarized in three main steps, which we present below and which allow you to create the optimal structure for managing the entire di cycle of company documents across SharePoint sites and document libraries.

1. Choosing the site

SharePoint allows you to create communication sites, such as the intranet and extranet, or team sites, designed for collaboration and accompanied by a Microsoft 365 group specifically to support the shared activities of a business team through the functionality of applications such as Microsoft Teams, Planner, and OneNote.

To create a document management site, neither communication sites nor team sites are ideal. It is therefore necessary to turn to the administrator of the corporate SharePoint tenant to create a more generic site, without the communication and collaboration features that would risk unnecessarily burdening user use and navigation.

The SharePoint administrator has the ability to access the Admin Center to create sites based on unique templates that are not available to standard users.

By clicking on "Create" in the "Active sites" area, the administrator can then choose the "Browse more sites" option and view the "Team site" template. Unlike the basic template, the team sites available in the Admin Center are created without an associated Microsoft 365 group. As a result, they do not have functionality for collaboration superfluous to the document management site.

To complete the creation of the new site, simply indicate:

  • Name
  • Address (which can be changed later, although we do not recommend it)
  • Administrator User
  • Language (which cannot be changed later)
  • Time zone
  • Storage limits (25 TB by default)

 

Creating a team site without a Microsoft 365 group from the SharePoint Admin Center

Creating a team site without a Microsoft 365 group from the SharePoint Admin Center

2. Defining the structure of the document management

The structure of a document management system depends largely on the needs of your company and the users who will need to use it. In general, we propose a structure consisting of:

  • A public site, where to store approved documents.
  • A drafting subsite, where to store drafts in process.

This structure can be unique for the entire company or be more customized to allow specific groups of people to manage their documents. For example, based on the department they belong to or a shared project.

Let's take the example of a single structure for the entire company.

Once we enter the new team site, created from the SharePoint Admin Center, we must first delete the web parts and navigation content present by default. In fact, these elements have no role to play in the configuration and use of our document management system.

After that, we need to access the "Site contents" area from Settings, select the "New" command and then the "Subsites" item to create the subsite that will host the editing activities.

Again, you need to indicate the name, address, language and template (choosing the "team site without Microsoft 365 group" option) of the subsite. But be careful: in the "User Permissions" section, you should choose the "Use unique permissions" option to assign access permissions different from those used for the parent site. This way, you can give access to the subsite only to users who will be responsible for drafting, editing and approving draft documents.

After saving the settings, the drafting site will be ready and can be included in the public site navigation through the addition of a custom quick link.

 

Creation of the editing subsite from the public team site

Creation of the editing subsite from the public team site

3. Creating and replicating SharePoint document libraries

It is time to create our first document library: within the public site, just select the "New" command and then the "Document library" item.

SharePoint will propose several templates to create the new library, including the "Blank library" template to create it from scratch and customize the values that will define the structure of the data entered in the new library.

The process for configuring metadata for a document library is the same as for SharePoint Online lists.

 

To learn more, we recommend reading our article on
how to create a list in SharePoint.

 

After defining the general settings for the new library, such as name, description (optional) and sensitivity label (among Microsoft's Security & Compliance features), you need to create the document library itself in the editing subsite.

This is a key step, which should be repeated for all libraries you intend to create in your document management system, to ensure coordination between editing and publishing procedure activities, including through the integration of custom automations built with Power Automate.

Why SharePoint is not (just) a good document manager

We've concluded, and although we feel we've given you some good reasons to use SharePoint as your business document manager, we think something is missing, a rather important part.

We've talked about the revolution in cloud technologies, the new way of working that will accompany us soon, and how to use the features of a platform like SharePoint to your advantage to make the bureaucracy that revolves around any business easier and faster.

But in all this, we feel we have not emphasized enough the value of communication.

Certainly, we have seen how the relationship with Microsoft 365 suite products allows for easy collaboration, moving across interconnected systems, and in real-time. However, having collaborative repositories is the first step toward a modern digital work environment.

After that, more come, and then more, until a fluid and pervasive ecosystem is created, capable of bringing together the documents, but also the strategies, services, conventions, work tools, initiatives and people on which a brand's existence and culture are based.

This ecosystem is the intranet, and you are in luck because SharePoint can help you create it, too.

Need help managing your SharePoint sites?


We have more than 80 hands to lend you to

  • Distribute the right permissions to users
  • Improve business document management
  • Optimize available storage space in Microsoft 365
  • Ensure the security of shared business information
  • Develop custom web parts and graphics for your company

 

Giuseppe Marchi

 

Microsoft MVP for SharePoint and Microsoft 365 since 2010.

Giuseppe is the founder of intranet.ai and one of the leading experts in Italy in all matters related to Microsoft 365. For years, he has been assisting companies in creating their digital workplace environment on the Microsoft cloud, focusing on people's experience.

FAQ on SharePoint as a Document Management System


Why use SharePoint as a Document Management System?

SharePoint allows you to manage the entire lifecycle of business documents, from creation to preservation. It is integrated with the Microsoft Power Platform, which enhances business productivity through automated workflows and information updates.

What are the main phases of a document's lifecycle?

The lifecycle of a document consists of four main phases: Creation, Collaboration, Cataloging, and Preservation vs. Disposal. Each phase is important for managing documents efficiently and securely.

What are the advantages of SharePoint compared to Google Drive or Dropbox?

SharePoint offers deep integration with Microsoft 365, allowing you to co-create and save files directly from SharePoint. Additionally, Microsoft security protocols protect data with encryption systems and multi-level authorizations.

How to create a document management site on SharePoint Online?

To create a document management site, you need to contact the administrator of your company's SharePoint tenant to create a site without unnecessary features. The administrator can access the Admin Center and choose the 'Team site' template without an associated Microsoft 365 group.

How to configure document libraries on SharePoint?

To configure a document library, select 'New' > 'Document library' in the public site. Define the metadata, name, description, and sensitivity label. Repeat the process in the editing subsite to ensure coordination between drafting and publishing.

What are the security features of SharePoint?

SharePoint uses Microsoft security protocols that include data encryption and multi-level authorizations. Users can define metadata to control access to documents and libraries.

What are the benefits of using SharePoint for document management?

SharePoint offers effective document management, allowing you to control the lifecycle of documents, integrate automated workflows, and provide advanced security to protect business data.

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