Metadata versus Folder

Should I use Metadata or Folders? This question often comes up when designing or improving a document management process.

If you use legacy file servers, folders are an evidence. If you have already used a Document Management system, you know how flexible and useful metadata can be. This post shows the two sides of the coin to help figure out what's best for your process. 

 What are metadata (properties)?
 What are folders?
 Metadata versus folders?
       Search experience
       Enforce types on metadata
       Use metadata to drive your process
 AODocs recommendation: when to use folders or metadata in AODocs?
 AODocs example: Organize procedures using folders or metadata


What are metadata (properties)?

Metadata are pieces of information or tags, defining a document. They give context to a document so you can better organize it and find it.
In AODocs, we call them properties.

Some metadata are automatically assigned to files and you are probably using them without knowing it. For example:

  • The Mac finder tags files with their Kind, Size and Date Last opened.

  • The Windows file explorer tags files with Date modified, Type and Size.

  • Google Drive tags files with Owner, Last modified and File Size.

  • In AODocs, all documents have system properties, such as library, document class, creation date, last modification date, document creator and last update author.

Some metadata can be custom and configured. 
For example, companies can enforce a naming convention for the titles of their files. In AODocs, library administrators can also configure custom properties for documents.

What are folders?

Folders are usually represented as a browsing tree with different sublevels. But, folders can also be represented as hierarchical metadata: if I place a file in a folder, I tag my file with the name of the folder and its path.

A folder structure can quickly become overwhelming and limited if you use a complex custom tagging system.

Metadata versus folders

If you are used to working with folder structures, you need to figure out if you need to upgrade to a “folder-less” structure using metadata.

Search experience

With folders, you get a single point of view: the folder view. To find files, you can either look for a keyword inside a specific subfolder or browse the folder structure.

Sometimes, the logic of the folder structure isn’t intuitive for users. Different metadata may be important for different users, and users may have difficulty browsing through folders if the folder structure chosen isn’t relevant for them.

To accommodate users who want to organize their files by different types of information (such as Type, Status or Business Unit), folder structures can end up containing lots of subfolders. But the more subfolders, the more painful the search experience. By adding subfolders, you may unwittingly end up hiding files in a subfolder or creating copies of files in different folder locations.

With metadata, you can create an unlimited number of views using the metadata you have set up. You can see the same documents from different angles and you can leverage all your metadata at the same time to search for documents.

Depending on the context of the end-user’s search, you can propose a wide search flexibility by setting up browsing, sorting or filtering options on metadata. 
As it isn’t easy to create a single folder structure that everyone will understand, metadata allows a document to exist in several “locations” all at once. The user just needs to know one of the metadata that has been defined in a file.

For example, you can display files in a view as a Business Unit browsing tree and use other metadata such as Year and Audience Type as filters within the same view. You can also switch to another view to display documents by Audience Type and sort them by Expiration Date.

Enforce types of data on metadata

Folder names are usually free text fields. Users may not follow the company rules and naming conventions when creating a new folder. 
In AODocs, you can enforce a specific type of data input for metadata. For example, you must enter data in date format for the metadata Expiration Date or you must enter an email address for the metadata Main Contact. You can also automate company rules and naming convention using custom scripts.

Use metadata to drive your process

In AODocs, metadata can become more than informative. Metadata can be technical as you can leverage their values to automate a workflow or a business rule through custom scripts.

For example:

  • Procedures are automatically published when they reach their Effective Date.
  • The Expiration Date is auto-calculated from the duration of the Effective Date + Periodic Review
  • Contracts need to go through Financial Department review if the amount of the contract is higher than $50,000.

AODocs recommendation: when to use folders or metadata in AODocs?

AODocs recommends a folder structure when:

  • the folder structure is simple and easy to browse (not too many sublevels) and a large number of users needs to view documents from Google Drive
  • the permission model is based on folders

In other situations, AODocs recommends using metadata, because:

  • it gives end-users more search flexibility
  • business rules can be enforced
  • workflows can be automated

AODocs example: Organize content using folders or metadata

In this example, two solutions are presented to manage procedures:
Solution 1: Folder structure, manual naming convention and manual validation (using folders)
Solution 2: Document class, metadata (properties) and workflows

Single view (solution 1) versus multiple views (solution 2)

Folder structure with multiple sublevels (solution 1) versus properties and workflow states (solution 2)

Manual naming convention (solution 1) versus naming convention based on properties (solution 2)



1 comment
  • Very well done! Excellent value proposition for the DMS library! Looking forward to incorporating your use cases into our communications. Thank you

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