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Are Content Types Dying?

A throwaway remark from a client about “Content Types probably getting phased out” piqued my interest, especially when a former colleague seemed to strongly agree with the sentiment by boldly predicting their demise. Around 5 years ago, I recall the same former colleague confidently forecasting the deprecation of the publishing feature, so I certainly listen carefully to his predictions.

Content Types have been an integral part of pretty much every SharePoint solution I’ve overseen in the past decade or so, whether enterprise-scale intranet, custom application, or records management system. As such, I felt that it was essential to evaluate the evidence and read the tea leaves for myself. To cut a long story short, my conclusion is that the way we use Content Types is certainly changing, but they are still an essential part of the Office 365 content management story – I simply can’t see them going anywhere for the next few years at least.

The golden age of the Content Type

Around a decade ago Content Types were seen by many to offer a solution to some of the more significant information management challenges. They provided a consistent way of ensuring that content was created with identical metadata fields and even promised to provide a great mechanism for associating pre-defined templates to content.

The Content Type’s ability to ensure consistent metadata was superb and still remains the backbone for almost every SharePoint-based solution, however, the ability to create files from pre-defined templates, has slowly faded out of usage over time. My view is that most people don’t start their new files in SharePoint; by and large, files are created in Word and Excel or even in OneDrive or in Windows Explorer and only later get uploaded into SharePoint. As such, it quickly became apparent that SharePoint’s ‘New’ button isn’t the best mechanism for applying templates.

Even so, their excellence in ensuring metadata consistency led to extensive use of Content Types within SharePoint. Solutions were architected with vast and elaborate models of Content Types, with the intention that staff would simply choose which type of file they were creating or uploading.

Only last year, I reviewed a solution that a competitor had provided for a client, only to discover in excess of 50 Content Types to pick from within each Document Library. Inevitably, in excess of 95% of the content made use of the default content type.

By and large, staff simply don’t have time to think about switching content types.

With the introduction of file drag and drop in SharePoint 2013, combined with the properties dialog no-longer being shown on upload, it simultaneously became far easier for staff to make use of SharePoint and far more difficult for them to remember to change a file’s Content Type. Around this time, I personally changed the way I made use of Content Types when architecting solutions. In the knowledge that users almost always follow the path of least resistance, I realised that applications couldn’t be designed to rely on the Content Type being changed. Instead, my solutions used fewer Content Types and began to set default metadata values wherever possible. I’m more convinced than ever that this approach is the best way to derive value from your SharePoint applications.

So are Content Types going?

There’s certainly good reason for people to believe that Content Types might be slowly phased out. As we’ve seen their utility has changed in the past decade, from almost being considered a nigh-perfect device for managing content, to their current role of applying metadata to content. Let’s take a look at some of the arguments:

  • The transition from sites to site collections – One of the major shifts in architecture that we’ve seen in the past few years is the transition from traditional hierarchies of sites to flat structures reliant on Site Collections. Our solutions are no longer contained within a handful of Site Collections, but can now span hundreds of even thousands of Site Collections. As Content Types need to be created within each Site Collection the headache of synchronising Content Types to multiple locations is a somewhat unresolved issue. Sure, we have the Content Type Hub, but in practice I find this tool a little unreliable and hope that we are provided with a new, modern, alternative.

  • Office 365 Group permissions – with Members of Office 365 Groups having ‘Edit’ (as opposed to Contribute) permissions, end users can now effectively add their own metadata. The Modern UI’s lists and libraries actively encourage this – making it very easy for staff to add columns. In effect, much of your content will now have different metadata applied to it. While some see this as undermining the Content Type, I personally feel it makes them even more essential – they are your only vehicle for ensuring that the core of your metadata is consistent, enabling content compliance and discoverability.

  • Changes in Records Management – legacy approaches to Records Management within SharePoint, including both Record Centers and In Place, were heavily reliant on Content Types – this is because the Information Management Policies that enforced retention duration were almost always, but not exclusively, applied to Content Types. The current approach, namely Retention Policies/Retention Labels is Content Type agnostic; you can use the modern Records Management features with or without Content Types. However, take a look at Microsoft’s roadmap and you’ll notices forthcoming support for application of retention labels based on Content Types already in development.

  • New File Template Management – only available for the past six months or so, the new file template management fundamentally changes the way I’m going to design many of my Content Type models going forwards. It effectively means that we no longer need to have separate Content Types merely to show different Office Suite applications on the ‘New’ menu. This reduces the number of Content Types that are required but doesn’t, in my mind, undermine Content Types themselves.

  • Supported by recent innovations – Microsoft are actively building support for Content Types into their latest features. We’ve seen Site Designs and Site Scripts supporting Content Types. We’re seeing Content Types being introduced into Teams. It’s clear to me that Content Types are still going to be central to SharePoint for the next few years.

Sure, I can see that it would be really useful if Content Types were updated. Imagine how much easier it would be to make use of them if you could configure them at a Hub Level or even across the entire tenancy. However, if anything, I feel that Content Types are now more essential than they have even been. Content Types are one of the best tools that an Information Architect has within SharePoint / Office 365 – and I personally can’t see them going anywhere over the next few years.

“Content types are essential to our vision of how we’ll continue to deliver content services innovation in Microsoft 365” – Chris McNulty, Microsoft – Sept 2018


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