Despite the year-on-year increased uptake of ECM systems, Shared Folders (also called shared network drives) are still widely used by organisations to store important business related documents.
The thing is that they are really quick, easy and convenient to use, which is why so many users continue to use them. However, they also impose a number of limitations in terms of how documents are organised, managed and shared.
This post outlines these limitations and further details the resulting points of impact that I’ve observed over the years across many client projects.
I am writing this post as the challenges of managing documents scattered across Shared Folders comes up in almost every ECM project that I work on and I am curious to understand what other people’s perceptions are of these challenges.
Key limitations of Shared Folders
Shared Folders lack much of the essential functionality that is required for organisations to effectively manage and leverage their business related documentation. For example, Shared Folders have no (or limited) capability to:
- Assign metadata to classify and tag documents that would enable those documents to be more effectively found;
- Exercise any formal version control over documents (specifically for Windows operating systems);
- Record an effective audit trail of who has accessed or changed a document;
- Enable documents to be flexibly and easily secured at a granular level;
- Enforce a consistent folder structure;
- Facilitate publishing/distribution of documents from a single source to multiple channels;
- Enable users to be notified when certain types of documents are created or changed;
- Restrict duplication of documents;
- Allow documents to be easily linked and cross referenced.
In my view, the pros of Shared Folders are outweighed by the cons as the functionality limitations of Shared Folders unfortunately impose a number of issues and challenges around the management of business related documents. Here is my take on what I think these issues are:
Considering these issues in more detail:
- Duplication of documents and confusion as to what the latest version is – The widespread use of Shared Folders inevitably leads to significant duplication of documents across the organisation, with the same documents being stored many times, by different people in different folders. This means that it can become difficult to tell if an existing copy of a document is the latest or final version leading to confusion as to where the ‘single version of the truth’ lies and who the owner of the document is. The result of such duplication is that people often access and read the wrong version or copy of a document, make decisions based on the wrong information and potentially release the wrong information which could have damaging effects in terms of costs and company reputation;
- Complex file and folder naming conventions – Lack of version control and the inability to associate metadata with documents means that complex/unwieldy file and folder naming conventions often need to be used. For example, <department code>_<project code>_<descriptive name><date><version>;
- Lack of consistent folder structures – Although Shared Folders can be organised and structured in a consistent manner, over time, without strict procedures and controls in place, the folder structures tend to develop inconsistencies and become less manageable. This means that finding documents becomes more difficult, often necessitating people to re-create documents (or extracts of content) from scratch;
- Redundant documents – It isn’t practical to apply expiry dates to documents on Shared Folders. As a result, the volume of documents can become unnecessarily large (increasing storage costs and making finding documents more difficult) as many documents are retained that are no longer used and that should really be archived or deleted;
- Ineffective search – Having a mixture of Shared Folders for storing and accessing documents without having a means to centrally index and manage these documents means that search and retrieval of documents can be extremely time consuming and often ineffectual. Searching for documents is limited to a full-text search (as there is no metadata available on documents to intelligently filter down the search) and also searches against old versions of documents (not necessarily something that you would always want to happen);
- Inaccessibility of information –
- Difficulty in sharing information – There is no easy way to share documents with individuals in other departments/divisions as they often cannot access each other’s Shared Folders. This means that finding cross department/division information can be very time consuming;
- Information lockdown – Utilising Shared Folders means that employing proper security policies and access permissions to sensitive information is hindered, resulting in a lockdown approach that limits the ability of users to locate and leverage required information without going through other channels, reinforcing silo working practices;
- External Access – No external and mobile access capability, necessitating the manual transfer to a web site (e.g. Extranet) of any documents that need to be shared externally;
- Lack of subscription and notification – Inability to push information out to people automatically to notify them of changes to specific documents or types of documents;
- Limited ability to synchronise documents offline – Typically, when people need to work on documents away from the office, they copy them from the Shared Folder on to their laptop. However, there is no way to ‘lock’ a document to prevent others from changing it on the shared area or any automatic means of checking for document change conflicts when copying the document back on to the Shared Folder again. It is not practical to synchronise documents offline which means that there is a chance of mistakes occurring and document changes being over-written;
- Inability to cross reference and relate documents – Using Shared Folders makes it tedious and difficult to create and maintain relationships between documents. For example, if looking at a document about a ‘product’ in one folder, it might be useful to relate that document to other documents concerning the same product that are perhaps stored in different folders. The way that this is often done is by inserting a hyperlink into the original document that points at the related document. However if the related document is moved or its name changed, then the hyperlink (and hence, the relationship) is broken;
- Lack of document governance and control – When Shared Folders are used, it is not possible to track and report on how documents are created, routed, changed, approved and distributed, both internally and with external bodies. Instead the associated processes tend to be ad-hoc in nature with no audit trail, very little control and governance and involving too much manual activity, allowing many people doing things differently and increasing the risk of more things going wrong;
- Compliance, Risk & Legal Admissibility – The use of Shared Folders creates many difficulties in achieving compliance with regulatory mandates due to the requisite information residing in disparate repositories and not having a means to prove the authenticity and integrity of the information. For example:
- Handling Freedom of Information Act Requests – In the UK, responding to Freedom of Information (FOI) Act requests can be very time-consuming and costly, especially if the required information is scattered across Shared Folders;
- Legal admissibility – Scanned images of documents that are stored in Shared Folders will not be legally admissible in a UK court as they don’t meet the BIP0008 standard (UK code of practice for legal admissibility and evidential weight of information stored electronically);
- Impeded collaboration – Shared Folders have very limited capability to support collaborative team working;
- Storage and maintenance costs – Growing volumes of documents across Shared Folders, with large amounts of duplication and versions, results in higher costs for storage, backup and maintenance. Although it may be argued that the cost of storage of electronic documents isn’t necessarily prohibitive, it is the management, searching and effective use of these documents where all of the greatest costs and associated inefficiencies lie. Hence, throwing more storage at the problem doesn’t really help.
Shared Folders are easy and convenient to use, but come with an ‘information health warning’.
You might think that with all of the challenges outlined above that most organisations would be clammering to get their documents out of Shared Folders and into ECM systems. However, that doesn’t seem to be happening and I will explore why in my next post.