There is no lack of content management solutions. In general terms, there are traditional folder-based and flat content management solutions. They are distinctly different in their approach & philosophy to content. 
When we develop digital technologies to replace inefficient analog processes, we often structure the new technology in similar ways as the older ones. A good example of that is the folder-based file management system that was initially developed by Microsoft. It is intended to reflect the old file and folder system that was historically used in offices for filing and managing paper-based documents. 

This was a legacy system based on the systems we knew. The developers could never have anticipated the Internet, remote work, and collaboration between business units in different buildings, cities and, as is common nowadays, different countries. 

Conventional folder management systems often create as many problems as they purport to solve. Why? Because we all think differently and, as a result, name and structure files and folders differently. A document or folder name that might be completely intuitive to you might make no sense whatsoever to me. As a result, if I’m looking for the folder you created, I may have no idea where to begin.

As the Internet and file-sharing have evolved, these problems have become more obvious. There are a bunch of reasons for this, including:

  • The volume of enterprise content is increasing exponentially, alongside the increase in compliance and audit requirements.
  • At the same time, collaboration within or between companies is also becoming more challenging due to considerations such as remote work and multi-national enterprises.
  • There is continued focus on increasing productivity and efficiencies, and having access to your content when you need it is an essential piece of this.
  • Everybody thinks about content management and organization differently and has different ways to organize and name content. 

To the Rescue: Flat Content Structure!! 
So, what is the alternative to the well-entrenched, universally known vertical system? Flat, folder-less solutions. Flat content solutions allow you to organize content so that your users can understand and use the same filing conventions. The names under which files are saved are predetermined, as are the locations in which they are filed, so there is no guesswork required in naming, saving, or finding important documents. 
So, what are the differences between vertical and flat folder systems and how do they stack up against each other? Let's do a comparison for both. 

Conventional Folder Content Management 
Folder-based content management systems are the traditional approach to ECM that uses a hierarchical folder structure to organize and retrieve content. In a traditional folder-based system, content is organized into folders and subfolders based on a predetermined hierarchy. Although the naming of content may rely on an agreed-upon naming convention, the actual naming is left to the individual. Because we all think differently, chances are that different people within an organization will use different naming conventions. This lack of standardization can lead to wasted time, money, and effort and can create serious compliance risks. 
Benefits & Challenges of Traditional Folder Content Management 
The good news is that traditional folder-based systems are a familiar approach that many users are comfortable with. Users can navigate through their folders to easily find the content they need, under the premise that you know in which folder the content is stored.

The bad news is that, while it is easy to file content initially, the lack of standardization may make it more difficult to keep content organized and named consistently. 

So, although the conventional folder-based solution provides initial ease or familiarity, it does come with a number of challenges, including:

  • Inconsistent naming: Without an agreed-upon naming convention, it is common for people to name content differently based on their preferences. This limits searchability, tracking, and audibility. 
  • Limited flexibility: Traditional folder-based systems are typically deployed for one user or one user group. However, this structure may not work for other user groups and may not accommodate the requirements of other user groups.
  • Difficulty sharing content: Traditional folder-based systems can make it difficult to share content between different teams or departments, as content may be stored in different locations or in separate folder hierarchies and is most likely not named consistently. This does not facilitate easy sharing of content.
  • Poor searchability: Traditional folder-based systems can make it difficult to find content using search functionality, particularly if the content is stored in multiple locations or complex folder hierarchies and is not named correctly.
  • Duplication of content: it is common for content to be copied/pasted in different folders and desktops at the same time, in function of personal preferences. This creates issues when it comes to collaboration and ensuring that access to the correct content is available. 

Flat Content Management ECM 
Flat content management, such as OttoFiles, is a newer approach to content management that places content in predetermined “bins” and uses pre-established naming conventions that can be embedded in metadata (refer to this article for more on OttoFiles naming convention) to create a very robust search functionality that allows users across the enterprise organize and retrieve content quickly, easily and consistently. Rather than traditional folders in which you need to know where to search for the content you're looking for (or guess at it, if you don’t), flat content management maps the content out for users in advance according to the bins and names.

Using OttoFiles terminology, all discipline or project-related content is stored in a single location, Bins, and Anchors are used to categorize and tag the content (you can read about content segregation in this article). Users can then search for content based on the Anchors, rather than searching through complex folder structures or hoping that a guessed-at search term aligns with the name under which a file was stored. 

Folders are often organized for the benefit of one group and are not necessarily open to or accessible by other user groups, making efficient content-sharing almost impossible. Flat content management makes it easy to set permissions so that only authorized viewers can see and review content and it is easy to track which users have downloaded and uploaded documents. 
Benefits of Flat Content Management ECM 

  • Improved searchability: With a flat content management system, users can quickly and easily find the content they need using the search functionality. This is particularly useful when dealing with large amounts of content or complex metadata.
  • Increased flexibility: Flat content management systems are more flexible than traditional folder-based systems, as they can accommodate a wide range of metadata structures and do not require a specific folder hierarchy. They're also better for different user groups as you're not dealing with pre-defined folder structures. For example, engineers think differently about content than project managers do, and a flat content management solution facilitates both user groups without having to worry about specific content organization preferences.
  • Easier content sharing: Flat content management systems make it easy to share content between different teams or departments, as all content is stored in a single location. The use of transmittals (read more about OttoFiles Transmittals) is an additional feature that helps distribute information to those who need it within or outside of the organization.
  • Content naming: OttoFiles provides a structured way to upload content with consistent naming. It provides a well-established convention and allows for content to be organized and categorized correctly.
  • Improved collaboration: as content is stored in one Bin (project or discipline repository), it enhances collaboration as information is accessible at their fingertips.

OttoFiles flat content structure creates an easy way to standardize the ways in which files are stored and named, creating efficiencies (and therefore removing huge inefficiencies) in collaborative organizations in which documents are likely to be shared across business units and/ or companies.  
Flat content management systems are better suited to large amounts of content, and with larger & different user groups, while traditional folder-based systems may still work well for smaller amounts of content and for small user groups that all operate within the same business discipline.  
Whether you’re thinking about the growth of your organization, or improving efficiencies and productivity, flat content management solutions provide a more robust solution that will future-proof your organization for years to come!  
At OttoFiles, we understand that for people who are used to folder structures, flat management structures can be difficult to understand. We’d love to have the chance to answer your questions. Check out our website or drop us a line at [email protected]