Using SharePoint Content Types for Document Management

Content Types: The Key of the SharePoint Content Model

SharePoint is a powerful tool for work management. It is built to perform many functions - some better than others. SharePoint's ability to do these functions stems from its core content model. The root of this model is the content type.

The content type is a very important aspect to SharePoint. All content (documents, data, etc.) get put into content types. Surprisingly, content types get very little attention. Much SharePoint instruction focuses on infrastructure. However, proper content types in SharePoint are necessary to use nearly all the functionality SharePoint has to offer.

Simplistically, a content type is a wrapper, a digital construct that wraps around your content. It is similar to an envelope. Your document goes into this envelope that in turn goes into a library in SharePoint. But, this envelope provides much more than a place to stuff a document. The content type envelope allows you to define discrete properties and behaviors to your document. It allows you to define how something should be worked on in your organization.

SharePoint comes with hundreds of content types out-of-the-box. Some exist because they perform a very important function for SharePoint, others exist as templates for you to copy from and define. It is up to you to figure out which is which. SharePoint forgets to mention this part.

What is important to note is that content types can be made to define specific work behaviors for your content. That means leveraging content types allows you to define how you want invoices to behave in SharePoint differently from contracts, for example. Once defined, these behaviors will work consistently throughout your SharePoint environment (i.e., once an invoice content type is configured, it will work the same way everywhere in SharePoint that it is used). It is up to you to define these content types. SharePoint cannot do it for you.

This article will refer to a common business document, the invoice, often. The invoice is useful as most people are familiar with invoices, and invoices arrive to your business both on paper and electronically. SharePoint can handle both types of invoices provided the paper invoice gets converted into a digital equivalent (aka a scanned image).

Document Type Versus File Type

First and foremost, content types are file type agnostic. This means that content type will handle any item that goes into it the same as any other regardless of its file type. A content type for managing invoices will work with an invoice that is a PDF, or a TIFF, or even a JPEG. This is a key benefit to the content type model. Your work revolves around how you need to manage a process - how you handle a bill that comes in - not the format that the bill comes in.

Going back to the envelope analogy: if the envelope is labelled Invoice, it does not matter if the invoice is written on three-sheet carbonless or on the back of a napkin, it will be treated as an invoice. Digitally speaking; if the invoice arrives in email as a PDF, or comes in via snail mail, and gets scanned as a TIFF, the content type, invoice, will treat the file as an invoice.

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The Anatomy of a Content Type

Content types leverage a combination of settings and site columns. The settings define how your content behaves, and site columns define the metadata of your content.

There are several key settings you can configure for each content type. The two most noteworthy are workflows and policies. Workflows allow you to plan out your work processes for this content type, and policy defines how you will handle your content in the terms of how long you plan to hold on to your content, and how to get rid of it. More on this later.

Site Columns is the SharePoint way of saying metadata. SharePoint is metadata driven so it is fitting that the core of SharePoint's content model is where metadata is applied. You define the specifics of how you want to find your content, and how you categorize it on a case-by-case basis with each content type. In other words, you define the metadata you need to identify invoices distinctly from the metadata used to define contracts.

The combinations of settings and metadata defines the content type wrapper (envelope) that your content goes into. Further, this also allows a content type to perform its work regardless of the type of file (e.g., .DOCX, .PDF, .TIFF, .JPEG) that goes into it.

Settings: Workflow and Policy

Workflow

Workflows can be added directly to content types. This means it is possible to make discrete work processes for discrete content in your organization. You can apply multiple workflows to a content type allowing the ability to apply different behaviors based on the circumstances (e.g., when a new invoice comes in, when an invoice gets changed, monthly processes, and disposition (deletion/archive/record), etc.).

Moreover, some workflows can be repurposed for multiple content types. A verification process for one document may work just as well on a different type of document. That workflow can be added to both content types.

Workflow is a very deep subject. It requires its own complete quick guide to cover. However, it is important to understand that workflows can interact directly at the content type level of the SharePoint content model.

Policy

Policies can also be defined directly on content types. Policies are the rules for how your content needs to be handled in your organization. The policies can be leveraged to help keep your content in compliance automatically.

Policies can be defined to manage what gets audited (tracked) in SharePoint (e.g., when something gets downloaded, printed, or deleted), and to handle your contents' disposition or archive.

Work management is not all about just accumulating content and generating more work, but also about properly getting rid of content and doing so in a proper way. Disposition is the dark art of properly destroying content in a legally defensible way. A content type is discrete, and so are the policies that are defined for each content type.

And, like workflow, policy and records management is a complicated subject requiring its own quick guide. Policies in SharePoint properly begin at the content type level. It allows for the rules of how the content should be handled to be applied as soon as it enters SharePoint.

Site Columns: Metadata

SharePoint is metadata driven. The simplistic often-used explanation for metadata is: information about information. In a nutshell, this means that metadata is the key information that accurately describes the item. It forgoes the full detail of the item to provide a quick reference. For example, it is easy to identify the book A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens by its title and author. It is not necessary to identify it by its 135,420 words inside.

Metadata provides superior flexibility over a file and folder construct in terms of electronic organization. If you have folders for documents by company, and a different folder for contracts, and you get a contract from a company, which folder does it go into? Simply using metadata automatically helps retrieve the item based on either criteria. The power of metadata stems from its ability to sort based on information, while folders sort by location.

SharePoint adds metadata directly to content types by allowing you to add site columns directly to each content type you create. You can add site columns that have previously been created, or create new columns on the fly. Once a site column is built, it becomes re-useable in other locations.

After site columns are added to a content type, they can be set to be required, optional or hidden. Required means that information must be put into the site column, optional means that information can be added into the field, but does not have to be added, and hidden means that the field (site column) is hidden from the users view.

Having required fields forces users to have to put information into the site column. While this sounds good, users have little patience for inputing data. If too many fields are marked as required, users will choose not to use SharePoint. In contrast, if the site columns are all left as optional, users tend to not fill them in. This is an unfortunate reality where there is no perfect solution. The best practice is to only make site columns required when they are absolutely mandatory for the content type to function properly. If a workflow, or policy requires some metadata that comes from a site column, then that field is set as required.

Finally, it is possible to apply too much metadata. A drivers license contains over forty pieces of metadata. However, it is realistic that only the firstname, lastname, and drivers license number is all that is needed for a particular application. That information is enough to identify one license. Just because the metadata is available does not necessarily mean that is should be collected. Less is more.

Content types are an integral part of the SharePoint content model. All items, both data and documents that are added into SharePoint go into content types. They are the root of how the SharePoint platform works.

Content types are a wrapper that envelopes the data or document. This allows them to be file type agnostic. SharePoint uses the metadata and setting defined in the content type to perform work, regardless of the file type. All file types will work the same once they go into a content type in SharePoint.

You can use content types to define individual behaviors for discrete content in your environment. This means that it is possible to define specific content types for specific document types - like invoices. You can define settings, like workflows and policies, as well as specific metadata for each content type. This allows each content type to work in the way you need it to for your organization.

Defining content types requires a lot of planning across your organization. Work management requires a blend of corporate culture, legal requirements, SharePoint support, and management buy-in in order to make a successful SharePoint deployment. Understanding the SharePoint content model and how content types fit into it is key. This aspect in particular is very important and worth spending the time necessary to develop a proper content type plan. This effort not only leads to proper work management in SharePoint, but also leads to a greater utilization of SharePoint features down the line.