Microsoft Hates Folders (Part 1 of 3)

It’s not clear what brought this on. For many years, Microsoft – inventor of Windows, which did not create the folder metaphor for directories (I believe that was Mac, or maybe Xerox PARC), but certainly used them happily for decades – and folders got along just fine. Then suddenly one day users of SharePoint Online couldn’t work with folders anymore, except in very limited ways.

I’ve encountered this many, many times in the course of helping clients migrate into Office 365. They want to move off OneDrive into SharePoint, or off of networked file shares. Great! We create a site for them, and appropriate libraries. And then it turns out that we can’t upload their stuff the way that anyone would normally upload things into SharePoint, because SharePoint no longer allows you to upload folders.

Did… it never occur to Microsoft that people who are migrating into SharePoint Online would probably have a lot of folders? That they might like to upload?

I know what the technical logic is behind deprecating folders, of course. At practically every SharePoint Saturday I’ve been to, someone has been teaching a class on why you don’t want to, or need to, use folders in SharePoint libraries.

A folder structure, when it comes right down to it, is metadata. You could have piled all your finance documents in the root of your C drive, but instead you put them in a directory labeled C:\My Documents\Finance to organize them better, because a Windows directory doesn’t allow you to apply metadata directly to files, so in order to mark them as Finance files you put them in a directory labeled Finance. And then you probably have directories like Taxes\Federal\2007, or Reports\P&L\2013, or Register\MyBank\Checking\2001, or stuff like that. All of this is metadata. Tax files, specifically federal tax files, specifically the ones from 2007. Reports, specifically P&L reports, specifically the ones from 2013. And so forth.

It’s a method of organization that comes from mentally projecting filing cabinets, where there can be only one physical sort method of physical objects, into the world of computers, where there could theoretically be as many sort methods as you have different data to sort by. So Microsoft has been pushing hard for SharePoint users to get out of the habit of folders, and use metadata instead with views that group, sort, and filter the data in different ways.  That way, should you have a need to pull together all financial reports for 2013, you aren’t hampered by the fact that the reports have been set into different directories by the type of report and then within those directories divided by year; you can simply pull all of one year together.

Well, ok, Microsoft, that’s great, but do you have time to go through half a terabyte of data going back 10 years to add metadata to it so that you can safely mark it in SharePoint without having to upload the folders? “Yes,” Microsoft says, “we do! We’re one of the biggest corporations on the planet and we are crawling with low-paid interns who can do that sort of work for us!” OK, but have you thought about the fact that your customers don’t all have those resources? In particular, your customers of SharePoint Online, which is most economic for small and micro businesses?

No. Of course they haven’t.

All is not lost, of course. There are two ways to get your folders into SharePoint anyway. There’s the method recommended by Microsoft, which is full of bugs, and then there’s the old, deprecated and nowadays mostly undocumented method, which is full of different bugs. The third option is to hire us to do it for you, since we’ve written our own tools to solve this problem, and if you’re planning to do that, you can call us at 410 633 5959 or email me at . Operators are standing by!

Yeah, I kind of assumed that if you were reading a blog about how to do this, you wanted to do this yourself. But I had to try.

So. In the next part of this blog, I’m going to talk about how to get your folders onto SharePoint anyway. Then in the third and final part, I’ll demonstrate the advantages to using metadata rather than folders and show why you actually might want to try to move away from folders as a method for organizing your data on SharePoint, going forward.