Leveraging SharePoint as a Document Management System

Due to the tremendous popularity of leveraging the SharePoint platform for basic document management (DM) and the ease with which it can be set up, many organizations embark on their SharePoint journey without much advance planning or foresight. This inevitably leads to implementation issues that arise at various time intervals after the site goes live. After encountering enough of these implementation issues, organizations often enlist professional help. This article describes three of the most common scenarios that may when using SharePoint as a document management solution, and how you can avoid them.

Document Management Basics

Before diving into the scenarios, it's important to understand the major components of any document management system and how SharePoint provides these. They include providing storage for the documents, versioning, metadata, security, indexing, workflow, and retrieval.

Storage

SharePoint leverages a concept called a document library to store documents. Document libraries let you define containers for keeping documents together, such as documents for a specific project, department, or any other logical grouping. Document libraries are not limited to Microsoft Office files—they can hold any document format, including PDFs, images, videos, and text files. However, SharePoint provides additional functionality for Microsoft Office 2007 documents (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.). The Office 2007 client applications let users publish directly to SharePoint, kick off SharePoint workflows, check documents in or out, etc. Check this link for a complete list of the functionality gained by using Office documents with SharePoint.

In terms of the underlying technology, SharePoint uses a different approach for physically storing the documents than most document management products. While most vendors choose to store the documents on the file system and store the metadata in a database, SharePoint 2007 stores both documents and metadata in the database.

You can learn more about creating document libraries in SharePoint here.

Versioning

Versioning saves copies of a document, letting users and administrators see and track changes to a document over time. When a user saves a new version of a document to a document library, the older versions remain available as well. This is an important feature in a collaborative environment where many people may be making changes to the same document.

Metadata

In a document management system, metadata is the information that describes the document. It comes in two flavors: automatic and user-defined.

  • Automatic metadata is traditional descriptive information, such as title, author, created date, file size, etc. This metadata is automatically added to the system when a user adds a document to SharePoint,
  • User-defined metadata requires an administrator or developer to add extra "columns" to SharePoint document libraries. These columns hold additional information about the document. For example, when creating a document library to house sales presentations, you might add columns for the presentation location, the presenter, and the presentation date. SharePoint supports individual data types for each column, so the presentation location column could be a dropdown of all major cities where presentations are held, the presenter column could be validated against all Active Directory users, and the presentation date could be defined as a date.

Security

Whenever documents are stored in a central repository, it's important to consider who will be able to access them. SharePoint allows administrators to define security rights to SharePoint sites, libraries within those sites, and documents within those libraries. These rights consist of permissions assigned to individual users or groups of users. Permissions levels range from read-only to full control.

Such fine-grained permission-setting capabilities are increasingly important, and getting a commensurate increase in attention, partly due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA). SharePoint has the features and functionality needed to create secure workspaces to store documents as long as they are configured correctly.

Indexing

Indexing of documents is important when you're trying to find the right document quickly. SharePoint not only indexes the metadata for the documents it stores, it also creates a full-text index of any Microsoft Office documents. The full-text index lets users search for documents even when the target search terms appear somewhere deep within a document.

SharePoint 2007 enhances the search functionality significantly over previous versions. It has better relevancy algorithms, better security trimming (prevents users from seeing search results for which they should not have access), and better search management and reporting tools.

Workflow

A document workflow is a prescribed set of steps the document may go through during its development and lifetime. You can think of a workflow as an assembly line for your documents. Some documents may be subjected to more workflow than others. For example, a loan application may go through a rigorous process, passing from one person to another and according to a set of complex rules. At a simpler level, you may just want to ensure that someone provides feedback for meeting notes before you publish them to a team. Either way, SharePoint workflows can help.

SharePoint 2007 ships with several basic workflows that allow you to quickly request feedback on a document or get approval. To define more complex workflows, users can leverage SharePoint Designer or write custom code.

TAGS:

SharePoint, policy, document management
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