Playing “the Shell Game” with SharePoint Folders

Ellen Van Aken

by Ellen van Aken on 8/5/2015

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Date Revised:

Applies to:
document management, grouping, metadata, SharePoint folders

The other day I gave a training session in SharePoint document management. For most people, managing documents in SharePoint is synonymous with “putting them into folders” so I knew I had some explaining to do.

I decided to demo “folders” and “metadata” with a simple example. I created two document libraries.

  1. Folders: Amsterdam, Barcelona, Paris.
  2. A choice column called “Location” with the same cities, and one column for Document Categories “Agenda”, “Meeting Minutes” and “Presentation”. Of course, I prefer to capture meetings information in a different way, but this example would be familiar to most people.

Both document libraries contained 5 documents, according to Site Contents.

I showed both libraries and asked my audience to tell me how many documents there were for location Amsterdam.

For the metadata library, it was easy: it was specified in the Grouping.

Grouping shows you immediately how many documents are in a certain category.

The other one was a bit less obvious. So I said I’d give away my precious SharePoint mug to the first person that could give me the correct answer.


So I opened Paris. 1 document.

Then I opened Barcelona. 1 document.

“Three” some people shouted. I opened the Amsterdam folder.


The audience gasped, and looked at me expectantly. Then I told them that a folder is counted as a document. In addition, I showed them the other library, again with the much more transparent grouping, and also showed them a view grouped by Document Type, and some other views.

The next day, two people called me to ask if they could “do that with the groups” in their own site.

I may still have several thousand people to convince, but I was happy to see that some people got it. So, perhaps this is a good way to show people the difference and the benefits.

Please let me know if you have the same experience – or have found other ways to convince people in a nice way that they can relate to. Summing up all the reasons for not using folders is not always convincing for end users.

It is a sort of “shell game” really. Oh dear, have I just done gamification with SharePoint? :-D

And in case you were wondering, this is my SharePoint mug!

My wonderful coffee mug from a SharePoint Connections event. Translation: “Silence! SharePoint guru tanking inspiration”.

You can find Ellen's original blog here:

Topic: Content Management

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  • That would be "drinking inspiration".

    But your real world example is awesome!
  • I spent much of the past 7 years or so doing this exact same type of campaigning with my clients. I have always advised metadata over folders, for the reasons you've listed plus many more.

    However, since the widespread release and rapid adoption of OneDrive for Business, it has become very common to sync SP doc libraries to our local PCs or handheld devices, since this gives us the great Dropbox-like experience that has become such a common way to collaborate on documents. You get seamless offline capability, you never have to use your browser to get to the documents, you get to leverage your OS's native search functionality, etc.

    The issue is that when you browse the document library on your local device, the metadata is unfortunately useless (it is nonexistent), and you are left weeding through a flat list of hundreds of documents with no organization whatsoever. Consequently I've begun to change my position over the past year or so, and I've started using folders more (which I never thought I would succumb to), because it makes the OneDrive experience much better, and that is the way most of my teams are collaborating these days.