SharePoint Document Management:
How to manage corporate’s documents
If your archives are not cooperative and still rely on folders and directories, you have a problem.
Because without the support of an intelligent platform, you are fighting against your documents instead of governing them. And you are losing.
With SharePoint, you can turn that around.
What you will find in this article
- Why should you use SharePoint to manage your business documents?
- How to use SharePoint to create a document management system
- Why SharePoint is not (just) a good document manager
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; 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.
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:
- 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 therefore 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:
- The file was created.
- One would duplicate it, often to a personal USB stick.
- The flash drive was given to the recipient person, who would download the contents to his or her pc.
- The file was edited locally.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
If you are interested in the topic, we recommend reading our article on
the most widely used workflows 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.
Since the deletion of a SharePoint site, as well as its archives, needs a rather detailed explanation, we won't go into it here.
But don't worry we already have the guide that completes the picture.
If you want to learn more, we recommend our article on
how to delete a SharePoint site in 5 moves.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Assign permits at the tenant or site level.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 only 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.
Think about it: you could take the decisive step in the evolution of your business.
Keep on reading
Find out what SharePoint is and how it can help you digitalize your business.
If you need to migrate your corporate archives to and from a SharePoint environment but don't know how to do it, this is the right article.