The thing with blogs is that one tends to write about subjects that one is interested in, or even passionate about. Often this results in excessive evangelism, sometimes it can turn into a rant. It would be a stretch to classify this as the former (but if you want an unequivocal rant read what I think about Folders)…
SharePoint is a marvellous piece of technology, offering a massive breadth of tools and some especially neat ways of managing documents and other content. It also includes some legacy features which have become largely superfluous, but which some organisations cling onto, not realising how best practice has moved on. This blog considers one of these, Check In/Check Out, why it should almost never be used and the few occasions when it still has a role to play.
As with most things Microsoft, the level of integration between different elements of the Microsoft stack is outstanding, and it often seems that the entire suite of Microsoft products advances in strict lock time, each taking advantage of the new features of other parts. There have been notable exceptions over the years, or course, but that’s the subject of a future blog.
Frequently, the collective improvements border on being a revelation, if not a revolution; they offer the possibility of radically changing business processes and supplanting previous good practice with better practice still.
One such ‘aha’ moment was the introduction of multi-author editing into Microsoft Office, and especially Microsoft Word, using the capabilities of SharePoint and OneDrive to handle the streaming of document updates in almost real-time. This is such a brilliant thing that it’s hard to imagine a world without it. However, prior to its introduction 10 years ago, we were burdened with a world where we either emailed documents amongst people and hoped to reassemble them, painstakingly and not without error, from the arbitrarily edited and often conflicting versions; or else we did the smart thing and saved them into an early version of SharePoint so that we could all work on a single copy of the document. Best practice, back then, was to check a document out while you’re editing, this locked the document and ensured that we didn’t experience the pain of conflicting edits where someone else saved their changes over yours, eradicating hours of important work. However, best practice or not, ‘Check Out’ and ‘Check In’ are, much like folders, an invention of Beelzebub, historically necessary but deeply evil. They serve their purpose to protect the document from overlapping changes, but they do nothing to protect hopeful document editors from colleagues who check a document out, forget about it and go on holiday, usually for two weeks (often more in Europe).
Time and again, check out has been demonstrated to erode efficient editing processes and to create a real governance and compliance risk. Checked out documents cannot be further updated by others; when such updates are needed in a hurry (usually not long before an audit is due), the only recourse is to create a copy of the document and work on that. This practice deeply undermines the single-source of truth philosophy that should underpin good content management. Of course, you could call a SharePoint administrator and ask them to cancel the check out; but that’s slow, burdensome on the admin and inevitably means that whatever updates that the check-out miscreant had (lovingly?) crafted are lost.
Thankfully, we are living in a new decade, where multi-author editing is a standard feature of the Microsoft technology stack and operates so slickly and transparently that it’s a doddle to use and it’s comparatively hard to screw up. When using Word and its kin, you can see who else is working on a document, see which bits they are editing and see their changes appear almost as they type in most cases. You can even contact the other author directly from the document to clarify wording etc. or flag a point to them using an @mention in a comment. Documents are never locked, version control and version history ensure that previous versions remain accessible and roll back is simple if required, tracking of edits ensures enhanced visibility and review. It’s bloody impressive and major step forward in productivity and compliance, doubly so if you have a distributed team or ‘agile’ timelines.
So why, oh why, do some organisations still insist on using Check In /Check Out? Here are some thoughts, excluding the obvious “They are blithering idiots” option which I wouldn’t dream of putting in writing anywhere:
- A lack of active learning about the technology across the organisation has resulted in no one realising what the new tools can do. This is a shame, especially as you are paying for all those new features on an annual basis if you have a cloud-service subscription. Given that the technology costs can run to £manyhundredsofK for larger organisations it seems that a bit of investment in getting ongoing and increasing value from the tools would be wise.
- Inflexible culture might to be to blame; I do come across “it was good enough for my grandfather” organisations, where they hang on to the old ways because they were fine in the old days. However, I don’t see so many of these any more, since most of them have gone out of business. It’s a rapidly changing, hugely competitive world and organisations need to flex with it. Including public sector ones, who owe the tax payers a duty to spend money wisely.
- Inflexible processes, where it’s so hard to change something that has been written into a policy or procedure that only critical changes are pushed through. Actually, this is often another symptom of the culture and has identical outcomes.
- Someone in IT or the outsourced services department decides that Check In is the right thing to do, that it is somehow safer or better. I can think of a handful of scenarios where this is actually true. But the other 99% of the time it’s nonsense and professionals or consultants who are paid to know better telling organisations that they should base their policies on it should be a criminal offense (I would make it a capital offense, but I’m a liberal kind of guy and reserve that for only the most heinous of crimes, such as Folder abuse); or at least ground for renegotiating contracts.
The bottom line is that organisations should have Check In/Out turned off as the default position. Version Control is generally already on (almost certainly true already if you are using SharePoint Online) and every version of Microsoft Office from 2010 onwards supports multi-author editing which ensures that changes are seamlessly managed.
So, go and check all your libraries now and turn that option off. It’s in Library Settings, Version Settings. Think about your version control settings while you are there.
If you think you might need to use Check Out then have a conversation with someone about the specific use case and see if you can really justify it. If you are stuck for someone to ask, drop me a line – but don’t expect an easy ride.