SharePoint Online migration–Pilers and Filers

A while back I wrote the first in a series of articles about migration to SharePoint Online. If you haven’t already, I suggest you go back and read the article:
The classic SharePoint migration mistake
What I want to cover in this article are the two styles of existing file storage systems you’ll find already in place at businesses – ‘piling’ and ‘filing’ – both of which have different challenges when it comes to migration to SharePoint Online.

Let’s start with the more common ‘system’ of file storage in a business – ‘piling’. In essence a business that ‘piles’ simply uses existing network shares or local hard disks as nothing more than dumping ground for files. There is no structure, no naming convention and stuff is basically all over the place without any rhyme or reason.
When you see this style of storage ‘implementation’ you should appreciate that the business has not put any time into developing standards for itself. It has all generally been about hast and once the document has been completed it is generally lost forever amongst all the other flotsam and jetsam on the network share.
Therefore, the most appealing aspect to a ‘piler’ is the ability to locate documents and content using search. This is what SharePoint Online is great at. This therefore should be the major aspect in which you use to sell SharePoint to a ‘piler’. Where you are going to struggle is trying to put structure around the existing files.
My initial post on SharePoint migration pointed out what a BAD IDEA simply dumping the files into a single document library is. In the case of ‘pilers’ this means you are going to have to put some structure in place to get their files under control. My advice is to start but dividing things into a couple of big chunks. Maybe one document library for each customer or perhaps some by function or project. Whatever it is don’t get too ambitious with the structure, just break it up enough so it fits comfortably into a couple of document libraries or sub sites. It is important that the structure you create is clear to the customer. That means keeping the naming convention simple and short.
Once you have done that make sure that the customer understands that their data is still there but they can either look in one of the ‘chunked’ document libraries or sites you used or they can use the search function. For ‘pilers’ you REALLY need to emphasize and demonstrate the search abilities of SharePoint Online and ensure that all staff know how to use it to find what they want.
Most importantly, you can’t just leave a ‘piler’ here because what are they going to do? That’s right, they are again simply going to ‘pile’ information into places inside SharePoint Online that you never imagined. The long game here is that you want to start moving ‘pilers’ towards being ‘filers’. You don’t however want to convert them totally, you simply balance out their tendencies.

‘Filers’ are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. What ‘filers’ love to do is create endless directory structures full of nothing but sub-directories and put files at the bottom of these, layers and layers down.
‘Filers’ too also have a significant need to search for information but they have the advantage that they have already started categorizing the information. You can therefore use this structure and mimic it using document libraries, sub-sites and meta data. It will again mean you have to step back and look at what structure works best but the flatter the better.
So can you see what the desired outcome is for ‘filers’? Yes, that’s right, you want to move them towards being more of a ‘piler’ and letting SharePoint Online search, filtering and sorting do all the hard work they used to implement with complex and static directory structures. The important thing when working with ‘filers’ is to show them how although much of their information is now contained in a single document library, they can use filtering, sorting and views to quickly navigate to the information they want. The good thing is that unlike ‘pilers’ they have already created the structure outline for you. All you need to do is map that into appropriate locations within SharePoint Online.
If you leave ‘filers’ to their own devices with SharePoint Online, what they’ll do is start creating more and more sub directories in document libraries. You really want to discourage this as it hides information and that structure usually only makes sense to a very small subset of people in a business. To prevent this happening with ‘filers’ you need to continue to demonstrate how SharePoint Online filtering, sorting and the use of multiple libraries provides a much better and more flexible filing system than what they used to have.
Again, you don’t want to covert ‘filers’ fully into ‘pilers’, you simply want to balance out their tendencies to move too far to one side of the ‘storage’ spectrum.
Thus, in summary, the first determination you need to make when you are speaking to a customer about migrating to SharePoint Online is how much of a ‘piler’ or ‘filer’ they are. Where are they situated in the spectrum? All customers will fall somewhere between the two extremes, however the approach you should be taking is independent of this fact. The approach you should be taking is that you should be aiming to get them to 50% ‘piling’ and 50% ‘filing’ within SharePoint Online. That’s the sweet spot where the product can really work its full magic.
Most importantly, is that any initial migration is just the start of the process and the opportunity if you are a reseller. To achieve the most optimal results continued work is going to be required in order to achieve ‘storage nirvana’ through all the features of SharePoint Online. Migration is therefore not a one shot deal, it is a process that continues to develop and evolve over time as you move a customer from the ‘simple’ storage to full collaboration with SharePoint Online.
Hopefully this second post in my series about migrating to SharePoint Online has given you a simple method to evaluate your customers and secondly given you a direction in which to move with them (i.e. a 50/50 balance for everyone) when considering your migration strategy. I’ll be diving into more specifics in future posts so stay tuned.

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