Lots of ink has been spilled touting Microsoft SharePoint’s ability to be a document management platform for everyone. And for small businesses with non-complex needs, or small teams that have special requirements for complying with retention and information lifecycles, SharePoint may indeed be all you need for document management.

But for mid-sized businesses (500+ employees) all the way up to the largest enterprises, in all honesty, SharePoint is a pretty weak document management system. It’s designed more to be a repository of content that employees, contractors, and outside contacts collaborate on and share together than it is to be a long-term store of documents. It’s not designed to replace industrial strength document management systems that represent the whole lifecycle, from initial document capture to editing to publishing to retention to expiration, with compliance and litigation management features thrown in for good measure.

Why have the legs on this myth stood for so long? I think it’s because SharePoint is not incredibly difficult for users. This is generally a good thing in that it drives user adoption more than any other technique would. But what we typically see in SharePoint deployments is one of two things happening—neither of which are great outcomes from a document management perspective. First, a bunch of sites and document libraries get created in the initial push after deployment after which they are left alone, with outdated materials, abandoned as the novelty of the new system wore off. Second, many document libraries containing duplicate materials—each in different versions—with the whole system essentially replacing file share and becoming a dumping ground for just about any file users can manage to find and store.

Even if you somehow find the middle ground between these two deployment scenarios, you will find that SharePoint includes just enough document management features to make you think you could make the system work for you—but you will quickly grow frustrated because those just aren’t enough.

Version history and management

SharePoint includes versioning, but it’s rudimentary versioning. There is no compare feature built into the product. There is some metadata collected as each version is either added or discarded, but other than a freeform comment field, there is little within the user interface to distinguish the differences in a versioned document. Plus, each of the versions of a document in most of the currently available editions of SharePoint (namely SharePoint 2007) are stored individually, with no deduplication or differential storage, massively multiplying the size of your SharePoint content database.  You end up with a bunch of different copies of the same document spread all around your SharePoint document management deployment, with no idea which is the truth. This problem is compounded when users realize this limitation and start appending USE THIS ONE or THE REAL DEAL to filenames—over and over again.

Managing the unique instances of any given document

SharePoint, in version 2010 and in 2013 at least, has a document ID capability that assigns a unique alphanumeric identifier to each document that is uploaded to the system. This means documents that get moved between document libraries and site collections are at least still managed as a single document and maintain their own URLs. In SharePoint 2007, it was especially frustrating to send links to documents because they would most likely break if the document were moved, because documents were managed only as objects of the libraries in which they were currently stored. But Microsoft has not really fully embraced the possibilities of this document ID system.

Permissions and access control

Access control is one of the more difficult areas to understand within SharePoint and it usually consists of some combination of NTFS permissions and Active Directory security group memberships. It also takes into account the way some site libraries and document libraries are set up. There is no systematic or central way to control access to document management infrastructure hosted within SharePoint, which could become a compliance nightmare. Additionally, individual documents are typically part of a larger work that the organization is managing—much like chapters in a book, different teams, for instance, work on annual reports for investors and create documents that will ultimately form part of a larger, complete document. Unless these teams store their work in a single document library, which makes it more difficult to share items across disparate teams, there is not a great way in SharePoint to manage access to all the individual “subdocuments” and administer their individual lifecycles and security. This is where a more complete document management solution would be a great idea.

SharePoint is a good solution for some things, but unless your document management needs are minimal, take the hype with a large grain of salt.

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