One of the biggest challenges in any organization using SharePoint is managing the document lifecycle. SharePoint document libraries tend to accumulate vast amounts of data, and organizations need a way to keep that data organized -- and then either purge or archive the data when it reaches the end of its useful life.
In SharePoint, a workflow is a series of semi-automated tasks geared toward performing a process in a consistent manner.
The first thing to come to terms with is the idea that SharePoint document management is a process -- not a feature. There is no check box you can select to enable document lifecycle management. Instead, document lifecycle management in SharePoint is about coming up with a plan and then using the various mechanisms in SharePoint to put that plan into action.
Reflect on goals and requirements
By far the most important part of the process is to define your goals and requirements for document lifecycle management. Unless you have a clear idea of what you need to achieve, it will be impossible to configure SharePoint in a way that meets your document management needs.
Some questions that you should be asking yourself at this stage include:
- What document types need to be managed?
- What retention policies should apply to the various document types?
- How (or will) document versions be retained?
- Does the retention policy need to address document content (such as retaining some Word documents, but not others)?
- What auditing mechanisms should be put into place?
Organize your SharePoint data
Once you have a clear understanding of SharePoint document management and of your ultimate goals for handling the document lifecycle, the next step is a strategy for implementing your plan. SharePoint has numerous document management features, but these features need a bit of help. Your goal at this stage should be to structure your SharePoint data in a way that allows you to create the policies and workflows needed to carry out your document lifecycle plan.
Every organization is going to handle document lifecycle management differently, but here are a few steps to consider at the next stage of the process.
- Start applying meaningful tags to documents. Policies and workflows can be based on document tags.
- Configure SharePoint to require users to populate specific metadata fields when checking in a document. This ensures that any newly created (or modified) documents will be properly categorized.
- Configure libraries to only allow specific content types. Doing so helps make sure that libraries remain focused. For example, you might configure a library containing expense reports so that it can only store Microsoft Word documents.
- Create labeling policies that generate meaningful, searchable labels for your documents.
Use document sets where appropriate. Document sets group documents that share a common purpose, such as a collection of compliance documents that are to be given to an auditor. Documents within a document set share the same metadata, workflows and even the same archival process.
Plan workflows and policies
The last stage is to create workflows and policies to handle the actual lifecycle management process. In SharePoint, a workflow is a series of semi-automated tasks geared toward performing a process in a consistent manner. SharePoint workflows are most commonly used as a mechanism for acquiring and tracking approvals for a document, but they can also be used to facilitate the document retention of disposal process. For example, a workflow might be used to send expired documents to someone who makes a decision as to which documents will be deleted and which will be retained.
There are a number of different policy types available in SharePoint, but when it comes to document lifecycle management, the most useful policy type is the retention policy. Retention policies allow you to define an action that occurs at the end of each retention stage. Such actions can include things like starting a workflow, permanently deleting an item, moving an item to an alternate location or even deleting previous versions of the item.
SharePoint document management is rarely easy to implement. With careful planning, however, it can be configured to meet your long-term document retention and disposal requirements.