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What is a Document Set?

A SharePoint Document Set is basically a hybrid between a standard folder and a list item. Document sets allow you to group documents together within a folder and at the same time associate them with metadata, workflows and other SharePoint miscellanea.

Document sets have been a part of the SharePoint offering since 2010 and are built on the solid idea of content types that were introduced in SharePoint 2007.  These can be enabled within the site collection features and then added to a document library that has the content types options activated. Today we’re going to take a more in-depth look at document sets and offer an illustration of how they can be used.


Bigger perspective

A document set is a special type of Content Type.  In SharePoint parlance, a content type is “… a reusable collection of metadata (columns), workflow, behavior, and other settings for a category of items or documents…” (SharePoint 2010 TechNet).

A document set, by extension, is special because it presents an opportunity to apply these features with a typically static content type; the folder. It represents a significant upgrade to a content type however, and as a result it’s not uncommon to see even familiar SharePoint users get confused by these two terms.


Default documents

Let’s kick things off by looking at default documents. These are documents that you want to be included upon the creation of any new document set content types. Their power comes in several forms but the most obvious is that they ensure that staff no longer have to spend time trying to locate these items. Furthermore, no one has to take responsibility for making them available. You can also configure default documents to inherit the name that is given to its parent document set.

Next is the idea of shared metadata. If you add a column to a document set, it becomes a ‘Shared Column,’ which as the name suggests, is shared between both the document set and its contained items. This provides a powerful mechanism for bulk updating and can even be used with workflows to do some creative stuff.

Moving away from functionality for a second, let’s take a look at the presentation side of a document set. Each document set instance comes with its own welcome page, which pretty much functions like a web part page. You can apply a degree of care and attention to this welcome page to let users know exactly what contents are contained therein.

Veering back to the world of functionality, document sets, like any list item can also have workflows applied to them. The quickest win here is to be able send a group of items through for approval in a single move rather than one item at a time. A folder doesn’t have enough flexibility to allow batches of documents to do this but a document set, by contrast, can.


Real world application

So, how does all this work in real life? Take for example, the case of an insurance claim. If a customer calls an insurance company looking to reclaim the cost of a flight or a trip due to a family bereavement, what happens next?

A claims advisor looking to gather more information before a decision can be made could create a new document set from a template that has been created by the IT team.  Within this set, the IT team may have applied:

  • A series of default documents, such as first contact letters, update letters, and calculation spreadsheets.  Each of these documents will have the name of document set appended to it, thus creating a unique set of items
  • Shared metadata can indicate the type of claim, what stage of the review process the claim is in, primary or supplementary literature and so on
  • A claims advisor can easily update the particular welcome page of a document set to offer a summary, show the most recently edited or added documents and more
  • A workflow can be triggered for final claims assessment once the all investigations have been finished.  The workflow could change the permissions of the document set to read-only for instance and then email the relevant person.


Ready, Document Set, Go

Document sets offer an interesting and unique collection of features for anyone looking to move beyond the limitations of traditional folders. Used correctly and creatively, they can save teams, departments and individual’s time on managing literature and content where a common need exists, such as a claim, business case or RFP. Some hidden power indeed!


Ram Tagher
Product Manager