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We are currently in the planning phase of a company-wide SharePoint Online rollout. I'm comparing pushing folders vs pushing metadata. Both have their pros and cons.

Microsoft Teams creates a folder for each channel in the default document library. We are heavily using Teams and sharing many files via Teams, so it's a bit of a mess at the moment.

My task as the product owner is laying down the ground rules for a successful migration to SharePoint Online. Here's what I've written down so far:

  • Raw data with deep hierarchies, such as Adobe Photoshop data, belongs in a separate document library
  • All other libraries are structured using metadata
  • All folder hierarchies are removed, but the folders created by Microsoft Teams are fine

And now I'm stuck. This doesn't make sense. Why are Teams folders fine if other folders are not? The users are heavily using the "Files" tab in Teams channels. It makes sense to use it. If there are folders in the document root, it would make sense to create more. But this conflicts with the metadata approach of simply tagging each document and then using the metadata to create a document library.

The common rule used to be "Use metadata and only create folders three layers deep"

And then there's the option to completely hide all folder hierarchies and just display all documents contained within the current folder and all subfolders. I found this rather confusing with all of the Teams channel folders, but this might be one possible solution.

My questions are:

  • What is Microsoft's stance on the topic?
  • What is the currently the best course of action?
    • Pure metadata structuring?
    • Flat folder hierarchies with metadata?
    • And should we remove the folders automatically created by Teams? (Sounds like a lot of effort that the users wouldn't want)
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This question is primarily seeking opinions since there is no "right answer", but I'll give my thoughts:

  • Folders are OK. Even subfolders. Just watch your URL limits (and if using OD sync, your Windows Explorer or Office client limits).

  • Let users control how their data is organized and displayed, but offer guidance/best practices.

  • Don't require metadata everywhere - in general, this leads to a poor end user experience, i.e. they don't want to use the system because it causes so much extra work.

  • Metadata is great for search, but it also isn't required for search -- Microsoft Search does a lot better job than previous iterations of SharePoint Search did in providing results for content without metadata.

In my personal experience, the Iron Fist of IT often kills SharePoint. They dictate the usage to such a degree that it becomes an undesirable system to work in. Let end users 'control' how they work while providing guidelines and efficiency tips.

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Folders vs. metadata is the age-old debate in SharePoint. We've been live in Teams and SharePoint Online for a few years now, migrated from a previous SharePoint 2010 server. The only correct answer is the one that works for your users and allows them to work efficiently. Here's points to consider before you set governance around this, based off my experiences:

  • Desktop sync does not sync metadata. Folders are an intuitive port of desktop file navigation. With the advent of OneDrive Sync users will also have access to SharePoint and Teams files locally, wanting to navigate them as they are accustomed. Metadata does NOT sync with the local file copies. Stripping folders from online copies will leave a big "pile of files" for any synced libraries.

  • Why not both? You can allow BOTH metadata AND folders, then create a folder-less metadata-only view for those who prefer that. To do this, create a new view called “No Folders View“ and in the view options under Folders select the “Show all items without folders” option. Folders will still sync to the desktop but views & metadata do not still.

  • Accommodate business demands. You may encounter senior leadership members who demand folders because that's just what they want and they do not like change. Period. The folders with metadata option listed above is the perfect solution to satisfy both people.

  • Folder URL limits are a thing of the past. When creating a URL via the SHARE or COPY LINK function, the URL is generated with a recognizable beginning and an incomprehensible alphabet soup at the end. It doesn't care about folder-depth and the URL address bar limitations of past SharePoint mega-deep-folders no longer matter. NOTE: You CAN manually create your URL based on folder structure, and I have. The reason for this is permissions changes can change that auto-generated URL's alphabet soup portion, breaking any old links. Manually created URLs are what I'd consider "perma-links" and do not break with permission changes.

In short, SharePoint Online requires a mind shift due to its differing capabilities. I've found that large changes require a bridge, a middle ground to allow users to ease into the changes. The BOTH option I list has yielded the best results in my company, but your results may vary.

Here are a couple articles from SharePoint Maven on the subject. I find his explanations are easy to copy from when explaining it to the layman SharePoint user (i.e. your users):

The hardest part will be convincing users and leadership that a hybrid approach not only works but is the most efficient method (if that's the one you choose). Good luck!

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