KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Kill the shared drive!

with 9 comments

Late last year I went to the South Asia region to participate in a discussion on knowledge management. I talked briefly about what we are doing globally, and then each country gave an update about what they are doing – and what their priorities and challenges were.

While I was trying to make the case for cross organizational networking and working out loud, as well as the potential for using social tools,  what I heard from the ground was a bit of a wake up call as to where many offices still are in their thinking about knowledge management.

One of the biggest preoccupations of offices was being able to organize and then retrieve their everyday documents, and for many of them the way to do this was by reorganizing their “shared drive” i.e. a shared storage space on server in a local area network (I define this because some of you might be surprised that we are still working this way).

So what’s my advice about how to improve the management of the shared drive. Simple – GET RID OF IT.

What’s wrong with having a shared drive in your office?

  • It’s only accessible when you are in your office – you can’t easily access it when you are at home or travelling.
  • Access control is limited – usually at the level of folders directory and you can’t easily share things with people outside of your group on an ad-hoc basis (also because the probably don’t have access to your LAN)
  • There are limited metadata and only a simple search to help you find things.
  • Space is usually limited and you are most likely already close to your quota.
  • Let’s face it – your shared drive is probably a mess. You most likely have years of accumulated documents in a directory structure you didn’t create and possibly don’t understand. No-one knows what half the materials are or whether they are important and whether or not they are current. There is no logical file or directory naming convention, no-one can tell who edited what and which is the latest version.

So what can you do instead? Use the cloud!

In UNICEF we are a Microsoft Office365 house so the tools I’m going to mention here are based on that but Google, IBM and other providers all have their own suite of tools that do the same thing.

If all you need is access to a set of official reference documents that people don’t need to frequently edit and update or that are confidential then the best place to put these files is on your intranet – don’t refer people to copies you keep elsewhere – it’s much easier to have a simple intranet page (or set of intranet pages) and keep them logically organized and up to date than it is to create a separate storage silo.

If you need a place to store shared documents that people need to collaboratively develop and edit, or a space for working documents e.g. for an office, a particular team, for a community of practice or network, you should use a SharePoint document library.

For individual files that you want to access remotely, or where you want to collaborate on these files with a more limited or ad-hoc number of colleagues or even e4xternal partners then a cloud based storage solution such as One Drive is your easiest option.

In a cloud based solution you can:

  • Access files from anywhere with an internet connection, whether at work, at home. You can also usually configure it maintain a local copy of your computer which allows you to work offline and sync with the cloud version later.
  • Your stuff is available 24/7 – it’s not dependent on the IT departments servers and whether they are being maintained or if they break down, or if they get destroyed by a fire, or if someone spills coffee on them.
  • You can share with more easily with colleagues and even with external partners, deciding exactly who can access the document and whether they can view or edit. This can be controlled at the level of libraries, folders or even individual documents. You can even link it to conversations about the documents through Yammer.
  • Cloud based storage is comparatively cheap.
  • SharePoint libraries also allow you to much better tools to organize your data including being able to add metadata attributes that are either optional or mandatory to help you sort your documents (such as document type, organizational unit, subject classification and tags). And when your stuff is in the cloud it’s also much easier to search in particular the SharePoint Search and Delve are quite powerful tools to search not only the documents you entered, but anything else that you have access to. Delve is even smarter in that it uses the “Office Graph” i.e. the set of interactions you have with colleagues and the materials you work on to help predict which materials are most relevant to you.
  • SharePoint has versioning control so you can see what was changed when by whom – very useful for ensuring you have the right version of a document.
  • It takes a bit more work and technical expertise, but SharePoint also allows you to program workflow i.e. to automate common work processes for working on document (such as a chain of approvals) which means you can automatically make sure a document goes through a pre-defined work process, see where it is along the way and identify any bottlenecks in getting it completed.

But if you are to move to the cloud you probably are wondering how do you migrate all the years of accumulated files to your new platform. The simple answer is DON’T. Take a copy of your hard drive and put it on DVDs or a portable drive somewhere if you are really concerned you might need it again later – otherwise only take over those files that you are currently using or have referenced in the past 6 months – or for which you know exactly what it is and what you need it for. Forget about the rest – even if they seem potentially valuable, the truth is you will never use them. I’d recommend creating an entirely new system for filing and categorizing your documents – one that makes sense for how you organize your work now with the current document types, topics, work units etc. that you are currently using and forget about how it was done before.

The step of giving up on your old shared drive and creating something completely new in the cloud (i.e. not a migration of your existing mess) is itself one of the biggest benefits of making the change. Creating something that works for you right now that you understand, control and has what you need.

Written by Ian Thorpe

April 14, 2015 at 10:02 am

9 Responses

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  1. If done right with governance and real structure, Sharepoint is ace. If a free for all Sharepoint is just like a shared drive. When someone leaves there is no ownership. As for “the cloud”…I think of this as a synonym for “its on the Internet”. Don’t believe the hype about “the cloud”. You could recreate your shared drive in the cloud. Is it really better? Most organizations allow access to shared drives using VPN, but restrict which devices can access it. This is the real problem. You should be able to bring any device, but most IT shops think that this is too risky.


    April 14, 2015 at 10:35 am

    • Fiona – thanks to our IT department we now actually have shared storage accessible on any device using cloud based storage (OneDrive), works pretty well – much better than VPN, both the accessbility but also the interface. The challenge for us is that people have not caught up with the change and are still wanting to use local LAN shared drives because this is their comfort zone.
      You are right that if you just recreate a messy shared drive in sharepoint or cloud storage it will still be a mess though. That’s why I advocate giving up on what you currently have and starting fresh. BUT even without that, I’d much rather have globally accessible mess with a good search than locally hosted mess without search.

      Ian Thorpe

      April 14, 2015 at 10:43 am

      • You’re lucky! In State government new leadership every 4 years likes to change Sharepoint structures to “align with new organizational structures”. This means “archiving” entire Sharepoint structures that don’t fit with the newer division goals. It’s very much like a Dilbert cartoon.


        April 14, 2015 at 11:39 am

  2. Ian, this comes very timely for me ! As you know I am currently working with the same system and have generated quite a lot of documentation that is shared both within and outside the organization. The cloud option is what I use (although not OneDrive as it is markedly slower than others – but then I have the benefit of not having to stick to corporate standards). The advantage I see in the cloud solution is that it seamlessly combines internal and external access right management, and therefore can be an interface between staff and people outside an organization – almost like little knowledge pods that connect internal and external users, and that are sufficiently contained for data integrity. So I would even think it is worth considering a combination of options, use internal e.g. sharepoint-driven clouds for staff of an organization, but make shared and collaborative data available through commercial clouds that outsiders can also access, and where rights can easily be granted by individual users for “their” portion of the data.


    April 15, 2015 at 3:55 am

    • Volker – actually you can also share files and folders with external partners with SharePoint and OneDrive we are already starting to do this on a limited basis (not that I’m trying to promote any single verndor – it’s just good wecan use the one we already have).

      Ian Thorpe

      April 15, 2015 at 5:26 am

  3. […] in social collaboration tools and adoption of cloud storage (rather than people using the shared drive or worse their e-mail archives and hard drives as the main store for their important organizational […]

  4. Agree completely about shared drives.
    OneDrive is good, but still does not have some of the useful features that Dropbox does…. I try to use both, but for practical reasons for the time-being, Dropbox is still preferred.


    June 5, 2015 at 7:57 am

    • Siraj – I have a slightly different take. One Drive is possibly not as good as Dropbox in functionality but it does the job well enough and it is our organization’s officially supported platform which means it is secured, supported and free for me to use for work purposes and it integrates with all our other IT tools and content can be searchable across the organization. I therefore use it exclusively for any work related sharing I initiate (see my previous post on “Love the one you’re with”) since I want whatever I share to be findable within the organization afterwards.

      (Of course I’m not ave4rse to using Dropbox and other tools for personal sharing)

      Ian Thorpe

      June 5, 2015 at 9:58 am

  5. Below are the main, I believe, disadvantages of shared drives:
    •A shared drive is not a records management system
    •Files could be accidentally deleted on shared drives
    •Shared drives have no rendering tool: file formats could become deprecated and, therefore, impossible to read because there is no application or machine for that.
    •Frequent cleanups of the shared drive can lead to loss of documents
    •There is no “retention and disposition” tool to manage a record life cycle and, therefore, to control the rapid growth of records
    •There is no version control tool to manage duplicates or know where they are located on a shared drive

    Marie-Helene Trepy

    November 13, 2015 at 1:05 pm

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