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SharePoint: the backbone of your information architecture

This article appears in the issue June 2009, [Vol 18, Issue 6]
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SharePoint buyers expect intuitive navigation, contextual search and easy administration out of the box—but such benefits depend on how content is structured, labeled and categorized, and they require a nuanced understanding of how different audiences will navigate and search for information.

The information architecture (IA) behind a SharePoint deployment has lasting consequences for the user experience and for Web site management. Information and knowledge management (I&KM) professionals should use their SharePoint implementations as an opportunity to set solid information architecture in place that turns today’s information overload into tomorrow’s valuable information assets.

The upshot?

Information workers will finally be able to find the critical information they need to do their jobs.

For the past 10 years, information architects have worked through how to organize and present information on corporate intranets. Common best practices and design guidelines have emerged, which include prioritizing directory lookups, news, and financial and human resource (HR) information on the home page, as well as offering task-driven or process-oriented navigation—such as how to orient a new employee or how to move offices—in addition to functional navigation. Organizing and controlling the information on an intranet has historically fallen to a small team of stakeholders who update the site map, scope the search engine and design the navigation. That manual approach does not scale well to large enterprises with diverse needs.

Many enterprises unveil SharePoint to facilitate developing their intranets—better employee communication and shared access to team information. But unlike a simple intranet or collaboration solution, SharePoint also includes portal, Web content management and business intelligence capabilities. A project plan focusing on quick deployment of SharePoint workspaces may overlook critical information classification tasks necessary to make SharePoint effective as an enterprise intranet and knowledge management vehicle.

In particular, SharePoint has some distinctive elements that affect an enterprise’s information architecture. For one, SharePoint content is stored in a SQL Server database, not in a hierarchical file server. SharePoint sites are managed in one or more "site collections." By default, the content in each Office SharePoint Server 2007 Web application lives in a single site collection and is stored together in the same database. Enterprises typically divide their content into multiple site collections due to performance, storage and management concerns. A single site collection cannot be stored in multiple databases. Thus, the absence of a treelike site structure defies traditional navigation of content from root to leaf.

Also, site collections can be thought of as secure containers that hold content of a similar stripe. A site collection administrator has full access to everything in the collection. Administrators can manage security, create elements such as libraries and calendars, and organize content how they see fit. That distributed model means that as SharePoint sites grow virally, IT and the business may struggle to balance control and chaos. As a result, large enterprises must decide what they should make mandatory and consistent across sites, and what they can delegate to project-, team- or department-level administrators.

The bottom line is that SharePoint is more than just a portal server. Its wide coverage of information management tools requires a dedicated, cross-functional approach to governance. Given that those capabilities are integrated, I&KM pros have an opportunity to manage content with greater rigor and with more user participation than has been possible before.

Sharepoint IA decisions affect key capabilities, not just content findability

The primary information architecture mechanism for MOSS 2007 is the site collection framework. Microsoft describes site collections as native containers of Office SharePoint Server 2007 sites and "the unit of ownership, quota and security management."

Basically, site collections are the linchpin of SharePoint information architecture. The way information is structured and stored affects its governance, security enforcement, disposition, accessibility and more.

Site collections affect operations like usage tracking, backup/restore abilities, storage quotas and security boundaries. A site collection’s Web parts, master pages and layouts, workflows, content types and templates control the common "look and feel" and functionality of its subsites. And, SharePoint’s navigation or site browsing structure, as well as search scopes, keywords and search "best bets," are set within site collection boundaries. Site collections offer extensive opportunity to manage metadata at multiple layers.

Add time for information architecture tasks to your project plan

It’s common to organize the sites by department structure and then department function (e.g., Purchasing>Contract negotiation) because existing security groups are often modeled with that hierarchy and it’s familiar to users. But information architects should make the most of their intuition about human behavior and skills in interface design, content analysis and technical know-how to challenge that status quo as needed. Some companies create site collections based on product names, client names or project names to offset the tradeoffs of hosting each department’s content in a separate site collection.

Site collections are just one piece of SharePoint information architecture. After determining how to structure SharePoint, I&KM pros must decide how to distribute universal information to multiple roles and groups, how to harmonize local and global metadata properties, and how to implement search.

There are two ways to get started on that. The first is to ask your users. Determine the boundaries of your user base: Does it include clients, partners, vendors, the whole enterprise or a limited subset of knowledge workers? Do geographic or functional boundaries matter? Interview a sample of users to understand what content they need and how they access it today.

The other is to analyze your content. Audit existing content stores to understand where high-value content lies and how it is organized. What content will be migrated to SharePoint, and how will you integrate what is not? How much content is duplicated? Is it templated and carefully managed throughout its life cycle? The answers to these questions will inform your decisions around content types, information management policy and metadata fields.

A rigorous approach to information architecture in the design phase is critical to facilitating flexible information delivery and access. SharePoint administrators translate the output of the design stage (e.g., paper prototypes and wireframes) into URL namespaces via "managed paths." Depending on circumstances, they might allow a single site collection under a specific path or allow users to create multiple top-level sites under a specific path.

Other mechanisms for contextual information access and delivery include audience targeting and search configuration. Audience targeting enables I&KM pros to define a subset of users by certain common criteria, such as a shared project or interest in a topic. Administrators can hide or show Web parts or target any item in a SharePoint list—like a news item—to defined audiences. As for search configuration, MOSS 2007 search can look across site collections, crawl shared drives and Web sites outside of SharePoint, map co-workers by "social distance" and retrieve data in line-of-business applications.

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