Many organizations are not fully realizing the power of content types when using SharePoint. Here you will learn how to leverage content types and use them properly through examples.
Content types are a new feature introduced in Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) 3.0. To leverage this feature appropriately, users can't just rely on the basic documentation. What you'll find in the real world is that companies are implementing the various components of content types without leveraging the full power of using the components of content types together. Once you've been able to move beyond using folders in your document libraries and you've adopted the use of metadata (or columns), it's important to understand how you can leverage content types to take your SharePoint Document Libraries and Lists to the next level.
To bring a real context to content types, I will be walking through various real-world examples. These will allow you to ultimately apply content types to your own business needs.
Before you start with the examples, make sure you understand what content types are.
Definition of Content Types
A content type represents settings that apply to a certain kind of content. What makes one piece of content similar to another? Do they share a common set of metadata (for example, author, purpose, and so forth)? Do you perform the same actions on these documents after they've been created? Do these documents have the same lifespan? If the answer to these questions is "yes!" you will need a way to group the information together. In SharePoint Portal 2003, you achieved this via separate document libraries for each "type" of document. But what if these groups of documents really should be stored together with other groups of documents that live by a different set of metadata and rules? In SharePoint 2007, content types can be used as the grouping method and provide a much better answer to using separate document libraries.
Content types allow you to store different types of content in the same document library or list. Even though the different types of content live in the same library, they can abide by different sets of rules. A single content type consists of the following core elements:
- A document template that should be used for this content
You can specify the document type and template you want to use as a base for new items of a specific content type. Many document templates can be specified for a single document library.
Figure 1: Document Template
- A set of metadata that is assigned to this content
Metadata is used to classify your content in a document library. In SharePoint, metadata is referred to as "columns" in the list or document library. A different set of columns can be specified for each type of document or content type in the document library.
Figure 2: Meeting Minutes Metadata
Figure 3: Agenda Metadata
- A set of workflows that belong to this content
You can associate a workflow to a content type, not document libraries, and the workflow then can be initiated for a document of that content type. The advantage is that, if a specific content type is reused in a different document library, the workflow settings for that content type are preserved. In addition, the workflow can be configured to initiate automatically or manually when new items are added or existing items are modified for that specific content type.
Figure 4: Workflow
- Information management policies to apply to this content
Policies are a set of rules for a type of content which enable you to manage content in terms of auditing, retention, bar codes, and document labels.
Figure 5: Information Management Policies
- Document conversion to make available for this content
Document conversion components transform documents from one format to another. You can associate one or more installed document convertors to a specific content type so that documents of that content type can be implicitly converted into another format.
Beyond these core elements, a content type also can be extended with custom features. These will not be covered in this article.
Now that content types have been defined, it's time to look at the specific examples.
Example 1. Connecting With Distance Learning Students
A large university is faced with improving its connection with the fast-growing segment of online students. In an effort to improve that connection, the university is looking to offer similar services that are currently available to on-campus students. One particular example is the English Department's initiative to offer writing assistance services.
Currently, on-campus students have two options for receiving feedback on their writing assignments. They have the ability to walk into the English Department offices to work with a tutor one-on-one to ask specific questions, or they may email their paper in and receive written feedback within 48 hours.
To provide a similar experience for the online students who hail from all 50 states and over 70 countries across the globe, we worked with the university to put a SharePoint-based solution in place that leverages content types.
We built a single document library to hold all requests for writing assistance. These requests come in two flavors:
- One-on-one tutoring
- Entire paper reviews
These two requests were mapped to two different content types. The "one-on-one tutoring" type uses a separate set of metadata and workflow from the "entire paper review" type. For "one-on-one tutoring," the student must provide the method of communication that they would like to leverage (instant messaging, video conference, and so forth) and when they would like to schedule a time to meet.
On the other hand, for "entire paper review," the student must submit the actual paper, a description of the writing assignment, and when they would like to have the paper returned. Beyond different metadata, the workflow is also different; "one-on-one tutoring" assignments are scheduled directly with a tutor and routed to the selected tutor, while "entire paper review" requests are routed to a central administrator who can assign the papers based on tutor availability and specialty.
Figure 6: Request Live Assistance
With the differences between the two types of requests, why wouldn't we just create two different libraries? Beyond the differences, these requests do have a lot in common. Regardless of type, the requests contain much of the same information (class, professor, degree program, reason the student is using the service, and so on) and are serviced by tutors regardless of type.
Taking It to the Next Level
Now, with a library that captures the tutoring requests, data retention policies can be defined to ensure old papers are deleted after the student graduates. In addition, the information that is captured as part of the tutoring process can be leveraged in future tutoring sessions to continuously improve the student's writing. Tutors leverage document library views that display historical tutoring information.
Example 2. Manufacturing Process Optimization
A manufacturer of solid ink and color toner cartridges is faced with a challenge to standardize their production formula sheet and test results when producing a new type of ink to comply with ISO 9001 standards. With 16 different types of formula sheets, the company seeks an alternative to the use of file shares to store these formulas.
Users have various versions of the formula sheets stored on their local hard drive, emails, and on various department file shares. These various versions lead to a time consuming and arduous analysis process.
To provide a solution for document standardization, we worked with the company to implement SharePoint and leverage document templates within content types. We created a single document library in SharePoint to house all the ink formula sheets. The document library contained a content type of each of the 16 different types of base formulas for users to document their production formula.
Now, users can select from a dropdown box the type of base document (formula) template that they want to create and save it back to the document library. Once the document is created, an approval workflow automatically initiates and obtains approval from the production manager.
In terms of managing content, the administrator now only has to update the base formula template in one location where all users have access. This helped standardize the documentation of creating new formulas and prevented the users from storing various local versions of the template. To comply with ISO standards, the documents were also versioned and carefully tracked for modifications.
Figure 7: Document Library
Taking It to the Next Level
After implementing the content types in a single document library, management now can report on how frequently and for what reason each of the ink formulas change and can implement additional operational process improvements based on the lessons learned.
Example 3. Policies and Procedures
The Human Resources (HR) department in a financial firm sees a challenge in organizing their policies and procedures. They store over 400 policies and procedures on their SharePoint Portal 2003 platform using various document libraries. From an end user perspective, it involves a significant amount of time to search a policy or procedure across multiple document libraries.
Additionally, the HR department emails the users an updated version of the policies and procedures template that the users are required to create on a regular basis. Due to various copies being available to the users, the policies and procedures are not consistent across various departments in the organization.
To provide an efficient solution that can help standardize the documents being created and stored, the firm decided to implement SharePoint 2007 as a collaboration platform. Procedures are supporting documents to one or more policies. To have consistency across the organization, there was a pressing need to have the policies and procedures stored in one location. Therefore, a single document library was created to house all policies and procedures.
The document library contained two content types: Policies and Procedures. Each content type had a set of unique metadata that helped users organize and find content. Both Policy and Procedure content types had a unique document template the users can leverage when creating new documents. Once the document was created, depending on the content type, a workflow was automatically initiated to get the document approved by the user's department manager. Additionally, list views with groupings and filters displayed the documents in an organized fashion within one document library.
The result of this implementation was a significant increase in user productivity. The users now can find documents and relevant information easily in one document library. Document templates are consistent across the organization for all policies and procedures.
Figure 8: Document Template
Figure 9: Document Library
Taking It to the Next Level
Once the policies and procedures were consolidated into a single document library and the documents were tagged with unique metadata, the organization now has the option to create custom search scopes specific to a content type. In other words, the users can search for a document contained in a specific content type across SharePoint 2007. The leads to more relevant search results because the user searches are narrowed to a specific content type.
The enterprise search feature of SharePoint 2007 can significantly help this organization increase search efficiency and provide more relevant search results to the users.
The true power of content types is realized by combining the use of document templates, metadata, workflows, information management policies, and document conversions. When designing your next SharePoint-based solution, consider leveraging content types to track different flavors of content that belong together in a single library.
About the Authors
Daan De Brouckere is a Senior Solution Architect at Crowe Chizek and Company LLC, with extensive experience architecting distributed systems leveraging either Microsoft or Java-based technologies for a wide range of clients. He is currently focused on delivering SharePoint-based solutions. You can reach Daan at email@example.com
Raj Agarwal is a certified SharePoint Specialist delivering SharePoint-based solutions across the US. You can reach Raj at firstname.lastname@example.org