Un-Managed Metadata: A couple of gotchas

Send to Kindle

As the SharePoint 2010 dust settles, gushing praise and inflated expectations are slowly replaced by the cold hard reality, as people come to grips with the limitations of the product. One such area is with the managed metadata service. Don’t get me wrong, I like managed metadata a lot and I can see a little ecosystem building around that functionality specifically. But it does have a couple of big gotchas that you should be aware of before making a big investment with it.

The sad irony is that these issues are actually not the fault of the managed metadata service, but the applications that are supposed to embrace and extend SharePoint and therefore accommodate it.

The reason I am calling out these two particular issues, is that I can see many people making assumptions that this will just work, make a significant investment in time and effort to develop an IA based around that assumption and then face the painful truth of having to work around them. After examining two issues that I suspect will cause some pain, we will then have a quick look through some of the implications and mixed messages that Microsoft are sending to organisations.

InfoPath Web Suckiness

The first issue that has gotten a bit of attention is the fact that the managed metadata columns cannot be used in browser based InfoPath forms. In other words, if you have a list with a managed metadata column and think that it would be cool to customise that list forms using InfoPath, you will be in for a nasty surprise. You will receive the following error message:


"The following fields in the SharePoint list are not supported because of their data type and will not be available in InfoPath Designer:

MyColumn (TaxonomyFieldType)”

I have a screenshot pasted above – which actually has come from a nice explanation of the problem made by Alana Helbig (hope you don’t mind Alana). Alana shows that if you persist and open the form in InfoPath, the managed metadata field will be hidden away, never to be edited again (and therefore pointless). She also also demonstrates that the behaviour is even worse if the managed metadata column is marked as mandatory. In this case, SharePoint totally spits the dummy if you modify the form with InfoPath and then try to load it. You will get a message along the lines of: “The following required fields are missing from the form” and a ULS correlation ID for your trouble.

Paradocially, InfoPath does support managed metadata when forms are displayed natively (ie not web based). This is proven by the fact that the MSOffice Document Information Panel (DIP) contains a control to display managed metadata information (in case you are not aware the DIP is an InfoPath form). The screengrab below shows Word showing two managed metadata columns (one with the imaginative name of “aaa” which I have clicked on) allowing me to pick terms from the term set.


Taking a closer look, if I edit the Document Information Panel settings in InfoPath, I can clearly see that there is a Managed Metadata picker control.


I never bothered with the SP2010 betas because I was doing a lot of non SharePoint work at the time. But from my reading, it seems that at one point, InfoPath could display managed metadata in the browser but it was yanked from the RTM because of quality issues. Some forums suggest it won’t be corrected in any service packs soon. I certainly hope they are wrong.

Conclusion? I assume Microsoft knew the implications of this decision – yet still, I feel that this will cause a lot of frustration and grief.

SharePoint Workspace 2010 Suckiness

This is the same issue, just using a different Microsoft client application: SharePoint Workspace 2010. SPW2010, if you haven’t seen it, provides a client for SharePoint 2010 that enables real-time synchronization of desktop content with SharePoint documents and lists.

This gotcha is one I fear might be even more insidious than the InfoPath one in certain geographic locations. This is because offline access tends to be an area people will think about later in the project. Where I live (Western Australia), is remote and dominated by mining. As a result, Groove had considerable popularity when you are in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a poor satellite link with >1 second latency ;-). Many organisations will flock to SharePoint Workspace 2010 because of its much improved compatibility with synchronising SharePoint lists, libraries and views.

The problem is that managed metadata columns can be viewed in SharePoint Workspace 2010 but not edited at all. 

Below I show a custom list with a managed metadata column called Projects.  The next image shows the same list in SharePoint Workspace 2010.  Note how the Project column is displayed in the list of projects, but is not displayed in the view/edit item form below it.



Now some of you might be thinking that this is fairly minor, and that not being able to modify managed metadata columns is not a problem. But check out what happens when the managed metadata column is made mandatory. SharePoint Workspace 2010 displays the error below when attempting to view the list.


Ouch! When you click on the More Info link in the ribbon, you are presented with a scarily similar message to InfoPath.


It gets better (mixed messages)

Office 2010 has finally gotten past the use-case I described in my “folders are bad and other urban legends” post. In Office 2010, application centric users have the option to browse document libraries not just by folders, but by metadata as shown below. Note how we are browsing a managed metadata term store in the File>Open dialog box in Word 2010.


The rub with this functionality though, is it only works for managed metadata columns. You might have configured a choice field for metadata navigation and in the browser, you can sort, slide and dice via those columns as well. But in Office 2010, you can only use managed metadata or folders. No views, and no other column types. This will inevitably lead organisations to invest time and effort to create an information architecture around the managed metadata construct. Yet by utilising managed metadata in this way, we consign ourselves to not being able to edit any of this data when we take it offline using SharePoint Workspace 2010.

*sigh* So basically, the more you try and move to a metadata driven, taxonomy approach, the more you make yourself rigid and inflexible.

But there is more…

By the way, managed metadata is not the only column type that suffers this fate. If you enable ratings on a list or library you will see the same problem. The first screengrab below is InfoPath and the next two are SharePoint Workspace 2010.




Conclusion: Violating the laws of motion

More than ever, SharePoint is a minefield of caveats. These examples conclusively disprove Newtons laws of motion because for every possible action, there are just not equal and opposite reactions, but potentially many more opposite reactions. More then ever, practitioners have to understand these complex dependencies, and then somehow explain them to stakeholders without giving them a brain explosion. Is it little wonder that there is commonly a big gap between the slick demos and the reality on the ground?


Thanks for reading


Paul Culmsee

 Digg  Facebook  StumbleUpon  Technorati  Deli.cio.us  Slashdot  Twitter  Sphinn  Mixx  Google  DZone 

No Tags

Send to Kindle