The most fundamental way your SharePoint and Microsoft Teams experiences are intertwined is through documents shared and stored in MS Teams. The reason for this is straightforward; all document management in MS Teams is actually just a window into what is happening in SharePoint. Whether you choose to access the documents in SharePoint or Teams, they nevertheless exist in SharePoint. This makes sense given the history of the SharePoint platform and its roots as a Document Management System. Microsoft Teams adds upon the existing SharePoint document management layer with other features like Conversations, Apps, and other integrations.
Let’s go over the available SharePoint document management features, explain how they can assist your teams in working together, along with take aways for you to apply within your organization.
What is SharePoint Document Management?
While Document Management is not always seen as an exciting topic, it nevertheless continues to underpin a huge proportion of our collaborative activities. For the purposes of our conversations, it is helpful to take a broader definition of a Document as almost any file that a team will use (e.g., Word Documents, PowerPoint Presentations, Excel Spreadsheets, PDF, Images, CAD Drawings, etc.). No matter the type of Microsoft Teams’ team, its members are continually creating and updating documents as part of their day-to-day interactions.
SharePoint Document Management Features
In SharePoint, documents or files are stored in a container called a Document Library. Each Site (and its attached Microsoft Teams’ team) begins with a single document library called Shared Documents, but many more can be added if desired. Some of the available features for Document Libraries include:
SharePoint offers a great built-in version history that is enabled by default and captures changes made to a document by all editors over its life. Past versions are all stored in the background against the document but can be viewed and restored at any time. This not only provides a way to review the history of a document but also allows for reverting to past versions if subsequent changes are not desirable.
How to Best Utilize Version History:
- Make use of the built-in version history to reduce unnecessary clutter and duplication
- Eliminate the practice of embedding versions into document names (e.g., Project Horizon Learning Plan v5.1.docx) which have cluttered file shares for years.
Metadata, sometimes called Tags, is simply information we append to our documents to ensure they are properly identified and categorized. While the usage and implementation of metadata can fill multiple blogs easily, the benefits of metadata cannot be underestimated, as they:
- Provide a tool to organize information;
- Provide a method to logically separate content;
- Help search engines find more accurate results;
- Allow for more flexibility in how and where content is stored;
- Facilitate flexibility in navigating information based on the situation or the end user;
- Support the creation of multiple pre-set “views” of the same content (more on Views below);
- Enable a level of consistency and control over how content is labeled;
- Provide a mechanism to support good governance practices (e.g., ownership, retention, etc.).
Certain metadata is always available in SharePoint and becomes applied to content automatically, such as Created By date, Created By User, Modified By date, Modified By User, Version number, ID, and many more. Where metadata really shines, however, is when additional situation-specific metadata is applied to content in a library. Several types of metadata are supported, including Text, Choices, Numbers, Dates, People, and something called Managed Metadata which allows an organization to create a centralized dictionary of terms that are then reused across SharePoint and Teams. With these types available, metadata can be used to classify the status of a document, its type or category, its owner, and even its sensitivity or confidentiality; to name a few use cases.
How to Best Utilize Metadata:
- Utilize Managed Metadata (also known as the Term Store) whenever a list of choices should be centralized for reuse elsewhere (e.g., a list of Departments).
- Always add at least one additional metadata field to your libraries.
- Avoid going overboard requiring too many metadata fields unless it is truly required, as this can work against platform adoption efforts.
Another topic worthy of multiple blog articles on its own, SharePoint supports reviews or approvals within Document Libraries. Suffice to say there are two primary methods to enable approvals or reviews of documents: via the Content Approval method in SharePoint, or via integration with Power Automate. Either way, Approvals provide a way for contributors to make edits to a document while retaining the ability to review steps before the document is published. Approvals can be configured to ensure that regular users do not see proposed changes to a document until they have been approved.
How to Best Utilize Approvals:
- Leverage Approvals but only where it makes sense. Overuse of approvals can be frustrating for users and can become an unnecessary bottleneck.
- Ensure the experience to submit documents for Approval or Review is intuitive and self-explanatory otherwise documents will forever sit in a Pending status.
Permissions and Security
SharePoint Sites and their attached Microsoft Teams’ teams have permissions that establish who has access to perform what activities. In SharePoint, Document Libraries use the concepts of Readers, Editors, and Owners; reflecting a spectrum of permitted activities from very few to very many. If multiple Document Libraries are used on a site, they need not all have the same security applied to them. Actually, this is one of the most common reasons for creating additional libraries.
Security in Document Libraries is, by default, inherited from the Site where it is contained – greatly simplifying the management of security. While it is possible to apply security at a very granular level including folders, and even individual items within a Document Library; this is not recommended. Always apply security at the highest possible level, with the Site or Team being the preferred option. Avoid applying security exceptions (breaking inheritance) unless an exception is truly required (e.g., a Document Library specifically created for storing Invoices within a Project Team may be restricted to a subset of the larger team).
How to Best Utilize Permissions and Security:
- Avoid item-level permissions, and only break inheritance when absolutely required. If it is essential, consider doing this at a Library (or Site) level rather than at a folder level.
SharePoint Document Libraries have excellent integration with Microsoft 365, and with Teams and OneDrive in particular. The integration with OneDrive allows for users to ‘Sync’ entire libraries, or folders within libraries, to a user’s machine to facilitate easier entry to a list of commonly used document libraries. This functionality is a tremendous asset when conducting change management and adoption efforts for users accustomed to working within File Shares as this replicates a similar experience for them to access documents.
How to Best Utilize Syncing:
- Introduce OneDrive sync as a means for users to locally access SharePoint Documents directly from their Windows Explorer experience.
Historically, many document management systems have relied on folders to organize documentation into a nested hierarchy. Folders introduce a physical structure to categorizing or classifying information, whereas metadata does not. The challenge with deeply nested folder structures is that they have often grown organically over time but without a pre-existing architecture framework in place to guide their growth. Furthermore, folder structures are often designed by a single user in a way that makes sense to them, but not necessarily to anyone else. Often, we see the use of folders as an unfortunate shortcut for change management, or simply because a file share structure was migrated “as is” into SharePoint. In either case, this often represents unrealized benefits of moving to a more modern platform like SharePoint. When used with care, metadata can typically replace the need for folders.
For Document Libraries connected to Teams (such as the standard Shared Documents Library), adding folders introduces further complexity and often results in confusion as an attached Microsoft Teams team already generates a folder for each Channel of the Team.
How to Best Utilize Folders:
- For Libraries attached to Teams, do not move content into the top level (above the folders) as it will not be found.
- For Libraries attached to Teams, do not create additional folders in line with channel-based folders.
- Use metadata instead of folders in other situations requiring categorization.
Document Libraries offer support for creating pre-set Views of information. A good way to think of views is a defined “lens” by which to look at the information. Views are incredibly flexible and can be Public (accessible to anyone) or Private (accessible to the user who created it). They allow for consolidating information in fewer libraries and folders by using Views to segregate content, show and hide information when it is appropriate, or simplify what information is shown about documents at a given time.
Some common and useful views include:
- Content created/modified by Me
- Content sorted by date
- Content awaiting approval
- Content flattened (without folders)
- Content grouped by a piece of metadata (e.g., show documents grouped under their current “Status”)
- Content filtered to a certain type of information (e.g., show documents filtered to only “Reports”)
More recently, SharePoint has offered additional ways by which we can configure views, to better tailor the display of content for the type of information. For example, a Tiles View shows all content in a gallery-like layout, which can be more suitable for libraries with images.
We can also format views with custom formatting to help call attention to particular information or create our own custom layout (more on this in a future post in this series).
How to Best Utilize SharePoint Views:
- Utilize the power of Views to give users flexibility in how they want to navigate the content of a Library.
- As a site owner, set up useful views for your users based on common needs and use links, or tabs in Teams to point to these views and make them easily accessible.
Real-time co-authoring is an amazing feature built-in to SharePoint Document Management. It allows for multiple users to work together seamlessly. Many of us in the SharePoint world will remember the constant headache of files “locked”, which, fortunately, has largely been eliminated. Now it is easy to see who has the document open, and even what area of the document they are currently working on.
How to Best Utilize Co-Authoring Capability:
- Encourage users to work “live” and discourage downloading copies of documents to work on locally (see Sync above for a better option) as this makes collaboration difficult.
Enhance the SharePoint Experience with Orchestry
SharePoint Online is a critical piece in the puzzle of effective collaboration. Given how Microsoft Teams and SharePoint Online are entangled, it is imperative to give the document management platform adequate attention and help organizations structure it so that it is utilized to its full potential.
At Orchestry, we are focused on ensuring a seamless collaboration experience for all organizations leveraging Microsoft 365. In future parts of this series, we will build upon this foundation to create larger experiences that can then be extended into Microsoft Teams. Stay tuned to enhance the collaboration experience in Microsoft Teams, as we share best practices and practical examples for your teams to make work simple in Microsoft 365. If you have any questions about leveraging SharePoint feel free to send in your questions at email@example.com.