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SharePoint: the backbone of your information architecture

Further, search administrators can pick "authoritative pages" and assign best bets to popular search terms to optimize relevance. And, remember audience targeting and advanced search need clean, coherent metadata to run properly. Without significant commitment to taxonomy oversight, those capabilities will not work.

Rigorous IA is the silver bullet for business content

While a rigorous approach to information architecture benefits a structured portal architecture, the benefits can also be extended to user-generated business content. Just as users struggle to find information in a portal setting, they also struggle to find relevant business content. Spreadsheets, presentations, documents and a host of other content are generated and thrown into a sea of hard drives, file servers and e-mail folders, more often than not, never to be seen again.

The aggregate cost of lost content can be tremendous. Applying a structured taxonomy to business data has long been one of the keys to tapping into its value. Yet the burden metadata tagging puts on users has led to disappointing adoption because most are accustomed to very lightweight storage tools like file servers.

While users embrace simple file servers, finding information after the fact presents a challenge because file servers only store two pieces of descriptive metadata: file name and folder label. (See Figure 1., Page 9, KMWorld, June 2009) Frustrated by the inability to find information on file servers, organizations invested in content and knowledge management systems. Those systems provided the ability for extended application of metadata to content. However, the user experience suffered. (See Figure 2, Page 9, KMWorld, June 2009.)

Automating the application of metadata when business content is created, rather than asking users to manually apply metadata after the fact, may be the silver bullet. By leveraging rigorous information architecture principles, users can create SharePoint sites directly in an existing portal architecture. For example, a user starts developing finance-related content by starting a workspace from within the Finance section of SharePoint. (See Figure 3, Page 9, KMWorld, June 2009.) The custom site can adhere to best-practice workflow and approvals, and it can inherit metadata related to finance or the specific author. Thus, users interact with the system much like a file system without additional metadata input into the workspace.

When content and people using SharePoint are classified in multiple ways, there is unlimited potential for users to find dynamic connections between content and people that were not preconceived by content creators. For example, teams in different regions may generate sales collateral for the same product. If that content is tagged with controlled metadata values, then a new teammate can find all existing sales-related content and expertise regardless of regional boundaries. The database structure behind SharePoint offers a hint of a future world less burdened by file formats and content storage.

Make the most of an information architecture blank slate

Many organizations are looking at SharePoint as a foundation for better management of organizational unstructured data. SharePoint has technical capacity to organize data in compelling and usable ways. The key to success is to create a strategy that allows users to quickly access and create information that is broadly reusable within your organization. The strategy will begin with an intelligent information architecture that is reflected in your site collection plan.

  • Extend the benefits to user-generated business content. The same logic that applies to finding information in a portal environment can be extended to business content. Make your portal and information architecture a jumping off point for creating business workspaces that drive best practices and inherit key metadata.
  • Plot the life cycle of diverse content types. Some SharePoint content is ephemeral and ad hoc; some is long-lived and essential to key business transactions. Investigate the tradeoffs of using SharePoint to manage high-value content from its creation to disposition. In particular, assess the impact on existing records management, risk and compliance, and storage procedures.
  • Actively curate content. SharePoint is not a hands-off, self-service system. Enterprises that intend to start off slowly with straightforward collaborative information sharing often end up with anarchy if elements like storage quotas and search scopes are not vigorously monitored by a central team. Assign appropriate resources to managing SharePoint sites and workspaces.
  • Consider add-ons to achieve your goals. Microsoft has embraced a partner network to augment its out-of-the-box functionality. Some enterprises buy additional tools like Autonomy’s IDOL, FAST ESP (now a Microsoft subsidiary), Dow Jones’ Synaptica, Interse’s iBox, or SchemaLogic’s Enterprise Suite to compensatefor SharePoint’s shortcomings in search, autoclassification and taxonomy management.

SharePoint is part of an emerging class of information management tools from diverse vendors that are structured to treat content in a way similar to how data is treated in a database. That architecture allows fundamentally more structure for managing content that is currently largely unmanaged. In the future, as content moves through the enterprise, semantic meaning will be added, like an envelope with many postmarks.

However, keep in mind that getting there will be anything but easy. Just because the tools exist doesn’t mean the structure will build itself. Careful planning is required, and plans will need to adapt as new lessons are learned. Don’t take lightly the opportunity a blank slate offers. 

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