Creating a self-sustaining and organized information system can be challenging. Keep things clean by facilitating good user habits.

The simple truth is that there’s a lot going on in the world of SharePoint. Microsoft offers both cloud-hosted and self-hosted options for purchasing SharePoint, both with their advantages and caveats that can make the management of content a bit different depending on your scenario. Furthermore, once you have SharePoint up and running you’re bombarded with a vast array of templates to choose from. Should you use a public site, a publishing site, or a team site? Do you want to use the newsfeed? What about Yammer and OneDrive?

It’s a lot to take in, and don’t for a second feel diminished because you feel overwhelmed. Even those of us who have been doing this for years are affected by the sheer variety that is the SharePoint platform. I have many colleagues who say, I’m more comfortable with team sites because that’s what I’ve always worked in. SharePoint has a way of putting you into a silo and putting the blinders on.

The SharePoint Mess

Between the hundreds of shiny new features packed into the product and the abundance of legacy features that exist simply because they need to be supported for purposes of backwards-compatibility, SharePoint is a daunting beast. I have been involved in countless projects where I hear the client say, we launched our SharePoint site with no governance plan, and now everything is a mess. Personally, we love a good mess here at Old River Creative. Messy SharePoint sites beg to be organized, classified, taxonomified (yes, I just made that word up). While we get excited when we have an opportunity to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, we know that not everyone enjoys their messy SharePoint website.

Why is it so difficult to keep SharePoint organized?

This recurring theme of disorganization begs the question: why is it so difficult to keep SharePoint content organized? Why do we see this occur time and again in the organizations for whom we work? The answer, I think, has absolutely nothing to do with SharePoint. It has everything to do with the nature of human behavior. We’re all good at looking at a mess and saying, someone should clean that up. When it’s our mess, however, it’s never quite so easy.

My recurring mess is a shed that I keep behind my house. The shed is where I store my tools, gardening supplies, and recreational equipment that I don’t use every day. About once a year, the shed reaches a point of disorganization where I can barely walk through it without tripping over a chainsaw or a leaf-blower that I have run out of room to store. The shed doesn’t get messy because I’m a messy person. It gets messy because of learned habit. I never think to myself, what is the best place to store this tool? I simply place tools where I have habitually placed them in the past. Over time, these habitual tendencies start to accumulate, and the inevitable mess is born.

It sometimes takes a third party to break these habitual tendencies. Occasionally my wife may ask me, why don’t you store your chainsaw over there? These moments are always followed by me thinking to myself, why didn’t I think of that? An outside perspective of your disorganization can be invaluable. Third parties are immune to your habits, ignorant of your politics. They create those lightbulb moments that only someone from the outside looking in can perceive.

These same tendencies can be seen in information systems. Your coworkers interact with SharePoint in their own habitual fashion. They organize their content as they have in the past. Users seek content in repetitive patterns based on past experiences. Some know how to find what they’re looking for using the search box. Others seek content through navigation or taxonomy. Every user is unique, and each forms a unique habitual pattern based on their experience with SharePoint, good or bad.

Facilitating Good Habit

These habits can both help and harm your information system. Widespread formation of bad user habits can result in a messy SharePoint experience. We all know what this looks like, and we all know what a headache this disorganization can create.

Formation of good habits, however, can facilitate a largely self-sustaining information system. If your users learn that they can find all benefit-related documents and forms in one easy-to-access location within your corporate intranet, they will learn to both consume and contribute this content in that location. Keeping content relevant, up to date, and findable goes a long way to facilitating good user habits.

Self-Evident Organization

Training isn’t good enough. Simply telling your team members where to place content won’t work for everyone. People forget. People leave. New people join. Operating on the assumption that people will follow your rules is a great way to ensure they won’t. People don’t like rules. They want things to be easy. In the famous words of Steve Krug:

…as far as is humanly possible, when I look at a Web page it should be self-evident. Obvious. Self-explanatory. I should be able to “get it” — what it is and how to use it — without expending any effort thinking about it.

If you can achieve self-evident organization of your SharePoint content, you’ll find that training is not needed. Use the disciplines of information architecture to research the audience, content, and context of your information system. Create a vocabulary and taxonomical classification of your content to help describe your organization. If it’s obvious where content can be found and where it should go, the content organizes itself.

Information Governance

Keeping content relevant and up to date is just as important as organizing it. If the only information that users can find is an old and outdated version of an important document, the aforementioned bad user habits will surely start to form. Create a governance plan to cull the old and highlight the new. Define roles and responsibilities to make it clear who and what is involved in maintaining your information system. A typical governance plan should:

  • Define roles and responsibilities to outline who is involved in maintaining the information system
  • Define ownership of content to ensure each area of your information system is maintained
  • Define the permissions granted to each role
  • Set a schedule for creating, updating, and removing content
  • Establish processes for creating, updating, and removing content
  • Establish processes for change management (such as adding a new term to the taxonomy)

The good news is that SharePoint offers many features to help facilitate the governance of your information system. You may create publishing workflows, automate content approval, and apply expiration policies to automatically archive old content. Utilize these great features as needed, but never rely solely on technology to govern your content. The reasoning cast of the human eye is a necessary component in any good governance plan. Technology can only help us so much.

Get an Outside Perspective

Finally, get an outside perspective. If you can’t hire an information architect, ask a newly hired employee what they think. An information schema that makes total sense to you might be complete gibberish to someone else. Remember that you’re an expert on your organization and the processes in place where you work. These processes might not be so obvious to newcomers and outsiders, making their perspectives, however naive, highly valuable.

Want to go even further? Follow up your all-important information architecture work with a new creative design. It can be immensely helpful to transform SharePoint, which is often perceived as a tool that that must be learned, into something entirely different. Something helpful. Something people want to use.

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