Folders, A Nutritious Part of Your Content Management Diet
Sean Hederman of Signate Document Management wrote a rebuttal of my AIIM article defending folders. He admits a bias as he works for a Document Management vendor built around search. I thought of writing a short response saying that he missed the point of my article and that he had nothing to rebut, but where is the fun in that?
My article was itself a rebuttal against an AIIM article saying we should get rid of folders by Chris Riley. I never meant to imply that we should get rid of search, only that we shouldn’t get rid of folders. I like search, and metadata for that matter. I complain vocally when search doesn’t work well.
With that in mind, here are his points. Each heading is a direct quote of a heading from his post.
People are used to folders, Rebuttal: They are used to search as well
This one is a solid point.
By that logic we shouldn’t use search engines to access the Web, we should organise it into folders instead, just like Yahoo used to do. You see, people are also used to search engines, they use them every day of the week.
Agreed. Thing is, people use search when they don’t know where something is located. They DON’T use search when deciding where to store things. They like to place things where they know how to find them later. People feel more comfortable storing something in a folder than spending time adding multiple attributes and hoping that search can find it later, sometimes MUCH later.
Folders didn’t work for Yahoo because people weren’t browsing for content they had placed in the folders.
Think of it this way, folders are great for storing, retrieving the known, and discovering related content (thanks to Shane for the latter point). You need search to discover the unknown. You can use it to retrieve the known, but that is based upon user preference.
Search Engines fail, Rebuttal: So does everything else
This is one of my favorite points that he raises because it uses the word “fallacy” and allows me to illustrate a key point.
Well, if your technology is based around an unreliable bolt-on search engine (looks meaningfully at SharePoint), then yes, this is a valid concern. If your entire system is designed around search, then the search engine is the core and any folder-based view would be the bolt-on, and thus would be the one more likely to fail.
He then accuses me of using a fallacy of the excluded middle, also known as a false dichotomy. He is wrong as I don’t propose an either-or situation. In any good system design, you need at least two methods for users to accomplish a task (which is why we still have menus in the age of right-click). In CMS, search would be one option for retrieval, folders another.
That aside, almost every Content Management system OEMs their search engine (I am not focusing upon WCM solutions here). As such, it is usually a locked-down version that does not have the full capabilities of the underlying product. I had a FAST expert on one Documentum project and he constantly complained about what had been done to the FAST engine provided with Documentum. It was done with good reason (e.g. simplify support), but it wasn’t all that the original product was.
In most systems, search is a separate process on the server. If it goes down, the system it still accessible, even if it isn’t fully functional. If the core process goes down, it doesn’t matter if search is up.
Folders help you organise, Rebuttal: Why manually organise?
Going to keep this one simple. Most of what he said is covered in my original post as Sean clearly comes across as someone who thinks folders aren’t necessary at all.
Not one person I’ve ever spoken to about their requirements from a document management system has ever mentioned the word taxonomy. Not one. Ever.
Sean needs to get out more or work with larger organizations or those further down the maturity path for Information Management. Not saying that taxonomy is always the right answer, but if he’s never run across it, then he hasn’t talked to enough of a breadth of organizations.
The simple answer, some people like to manually organize. That process helps them weed out unneeded content and the resulting organization can reveal a lot about a business.
Not using folders cripples systems, Rebuttal: Only if the developers were idiots
He starts talking about operating system limits, which I have never dealt with in this debate. The whole point of using Content Management is to transcend the file structure of the operating system. Most of his arguments revolve around the folder structure of the CMS equating to the one on the OS. I advise steering clear of any CMS that is like that.
Essentially put, a well designed system never has a “dump” location for content. Everything has a logical place that make business sense. I think Sean is limited here by his lack of exposure to the working of the larger Content Management marketplace.
Search Engines can’t read your mind reliably, Rebuttal: nothing can
Yeah, but when I put something into a folder, I know where it is. If the folders are logically organized, someone else can find it as well.
The real point I was trying to make is this, search engines have some limitations. One is that their algorithms are still evolving. Actually that is minor. The real issue that that not everyone knows how to ask a Search Engine the question correctly. You can train and use tricks behind the scenes, but it will be years before it always works.
Remember, it isn’t enough for one system to work, but for all search engines and those using them to work correctly.
Sean concludes by saying that search should be the center of you Content Management system. Personally, I think neither search or folders should be the center.
In an ideal world, I would tell a system what I wanted and it would always return the correct file every time. This isn’t an ideal world. We are dependent on full-text search because people will only do minimal tagging unless forced and if forced, they will find a way around it.
Oh and for the record, the largest CMS I ever implemented did not expose any folders/hierarchy to the users.
A related post that I wrote years ago on this topic still applies if you are interested in reading more: Taxonomies, Good, Bad, or Ugly?