We love folders. They are our digital comfort food. We can create them with ease; we can add to them; we can nest them. In our organizations, however, they become cumbersome to manage, make it difficult to find content and create artificial barriers between similar pieces of content. For all of these reasons, it is time to end our love affair with folders.

Folder issues
Folders can be structured in four ways in the enterprise. They can be aligned to the organizational chart, which is most often the case. In this model, folders are present along division and department lines and the like. Folders, too, can be structured to align with roles so that, for example, accountants all work within a similar folder structure. They can also be structured along document types so that reports all end up grouped together. The fourth option for structuring folders would be some combination of any of the aforementioned three options.

All of these options, however, place a limitation on users. If the folder structure is established along the lines of the organizational chart, a user will likely not be comfortable navigating outside of his/her department or division. For example, the accountant in department A would have a difficult time validating his/her work against an accountant in department B. Likewise, this would be the same for sharing by department if the folder structure is established along a document type arrangement.

There are options for avoiding these types of issues today through the use of metadata and/or tagging. A flat file structure that leverages metadata can arc beyond typical boundaries to provide more value to users. Filtering by a “department” metadata field could give a user a departmental view of content, much like an organizational chart-based folder structure would. Filtering metadata by document type would provide a view much like the document type folder structure. The filtering and sorting of metadata can provide more to users than a simple folder structure.

It is true that some systems are achieving this already through the use of “virtual folders.” Vendors, who sell systems that have these types of virtual folders, are already leveraging metadata to create folders that don’t actually exist in order to provide alternate ways of viewing the content in the system.

Users, by combining multiple fields of filtered metadata, can expand the findability of relevant content rather than being forced into a rigid folder structure. By way of example, let’s say there are two folders—one for department A, and one for department B—each with a similar report. The two users leveraging those reports would never serendipitously learn of each other’s report without leveraging search. Users search for items that cannot be found, not for content that they know how to browse to or for content that they could find. It is through these unseen connections between content that additional value is created in the organization.

An additional way of enhancing the post-folder view is through the use of user-generated content tags. Tagging is a way for users to loosely group content together by associated words and phrases. By combining both the less rigid metadata model and the non-rigid tagging model, users are given more flexibility in serendipitously finding related content and leveraging that content for the betterment of the organization.

In addition, tags and metadata can be utilized to learn from the user population (i.e., their vernacular, their shorthand, their phrasing, what they find to be important) through the use of logging. If a particular phrase is being used for tagging on a regular basis, it may be fruitful to explore that particular phrase further to see how it may be encompassed within the formal enterprise taxonomy. This can help to improve findability of content through filtering and sorting, as well as improving search.

Farewell folders
Folders create artificial barriers in our content, at best, and confusion, at worst; yet, they are what we are comfortable in utilizing. With the technology at our disposal today, it is time to let go of our folders and move towards the serendipitous finding of value in our content through the better utilization of both metadata and tagging.

Nick Inglis is a founding partner of Optismo and co-founder of The Information Governance Conference. For more information on the conference, visit infogovcon.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickinglis.

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