File Sharing Systems: How Simple?

Written by Tim Haight

I'm VP of Technology Services for CGNET. I love to travel and do IT strategic planning.

August 12, 2014

File Sharing, Collaboration and Content ManagementFile sharing systems have become popular because they overcome problems such as managing email attachments, large file sizes, remote access and sync across devices. We discussed this in our previous post. In choosing a file sharing system, however, you need to decide how much you want to do with it. Do you want to address only the basic file sharing pain points, or do you also want to improve other processes at your organization, such as collaboration and content management? You will find there is a tradeoff between functionality and simplicity, and there are good arguments on each side.

On the side of simplicity, you may find more ease of use, and, therefore, more adoption. You may also get higher user satisfaction and less calls for tech support, assuming the basic pain points are addressed. The problem with simplicity, however, is that some needs may remain unaddressed. Simple file sharing solutions may not improve how people work together on documents once they get them. They may not make it much easier to find particular files, and they definitely won’t touch areas like workflow, project management or content management.

After you’ve adopted a simple file sharing system, and the organization gets around to complaining about the other processes, you may be faced with how to implement another system without competing with the one you already have. As my colleague Dan Callahan has said, having two repositories for an organization’s documents is like how John Madden described having two starting quarterbacks. It means having no starting quarterback. You don’t want to have to pick between two principal repositories when storing files. This is sure to complicate finding stuff.


The File Sharing Feature Continuum

So where do you draw the line? One way is to arrange the different products that offer file sharing on a continuum, with the simplest at one end and the most feature-rich on the other. Then you can move along the continuum until you find the point that most seems to match your organization’s needs. Of course, this assumes that you know your organization’s needs.

I believe that the best way to find out an organization’s needs about something like file sharing, collaboration and content management is to interview everybody. This is a lot of work, however. You can cut down the work by having small group meetings instead of individual interviews. You can also send out questionnaires, but this has two risks: You may get a lousy response rate, or you may get back superficial and incomplete answers. I don’t recommend just interviewing department heads. They differ significantly from rank-and-file users. You will have to decide what’s possible, but I say to go for completeness if you can.

Once you know the needs, you can draft a list of features, from the most basic to the more advanced. This is how such a list developed for one group we worked with recently, from most basic to more elaborate.

  • Access to files from any location, local or remote
  • The ability to share files of any size, including upload and storage limits
  • Support of important document formats
  • The ability to replace email attachments with links to files
  • The ability to manage files, e.g. creating folders, moving files
  • The ability to control access by different classes of users
  • The ability to synchronize files across different devices
  • Version control
  • The quality of the search engine
  • Integration with email programs, e.g. Outlook
  • The ability to track file usage, including receiving alerts and generating reports
  • Project management features
  • Workflow features
  • Other collaboration features, such as comments
  • Integration with other applications, e.g. Office, Salesforce
  • Content management features, e.g. metadata

In addition to these features of interest to users, there are also features of more interest to administrators, such as ease of administration, scope of administration and security.

In general, products tend to order themselves into three categories: those that mostly do file sharing, those that also have important collaboration features, and those that also do content management. But the quality of different features is important, too. Arguably, a good search engine may reduce the need for metadata. Our next article will discuss specific products, the quality of their features, and where they fall along this continuum.

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