SharePoint Document Set Primer

There are a lot of features in SharePoint that often are underutilized due to a lack of understanding of the benefits they provide. Recently, I worked on a project where one of my peers recommended using Document Sets. As I begin to use them and learn more about them, I was impressed with the functionality they provide. In this blog, I hope to describe a scenario where we used Document Sets and, in the process, help you understand more about them and how they might be leveraged in your organization.

On a recent client engagement, we built some simple yet powerful departmental applications to simplify the processing and approval of requests for expenditure, refunds, purchase orders and invoices. For each of these types of requests, we needed to capture general information about the request (date, vendor, amount, etc) that would be necessary for approval, but also needed to capture associated documents that were associated such as a digital copy of a quote, purchase order or invoice. Document Sets seemed to be a natural fit.

What is a Document Set?

At one level, a Document Set can be thought of as a “Folder on steroids.” A Document Set is a container that can contain a number of documents, but also has the additional capability of storing associated metadata that applies to the contained documents. Below is a screen shot of a Document Set “add” screen. In our scenario, this is the screen users use to enter a Purchase Order request. As you can see, the metadata consists of required fields and optional fields including different data types (simple text boxes, dates, people pickers and drop-down lists).

Document Set Add screen

After I enter the required fields and save the Document Set (i.e. Purchase Order), you can see it looks like any other SharePoint List item. The fields defined in the Document Set show up as columns by which I can sort and filter the Document Sets which in this case represent Purchase Order requests.



List of Document Sets (Purchase Orders in our scenario)

Once I click on a Document Set (i.e. Purchase Order), I’m presented with the Document Set home page shown below.

Document Set Home Page

The Document Set home page displays important data from the Document Set at the top and allows me to view and add associated documents at the bottom. In our scenario, the home page displays fields related to the Purchase Order. The specific fields that display on this “home page” are one of the configuration options of Document Sets that are described below.

In addition to the high-level information displayed about the Document Set (Purchase Order), I can add documents “inside” this Document Set. I configured the Document Set to automatically add this breakdown.xls file each time a new Document Set (Purchase Order) is created, but users can also manually add other documents that pertain to this purchase order after it is created.

Document Set Configuration Options

Document sets have a number of configuration options that are available. First of all, I can specify the types of documents that can be added to the document set. In my scenario, I have included the generic document so Word and Excel files can be added and also Invoice so my invoices can be added. Next, I have configured an Excel document to be added to all new document sets when they are created since this is a document that will be used in many scenarios.

Next, I have defined “shared columns” which are columns whose values will be copied down from the Document Set to the documents that are added within. In our scenario, I have defined the “Requested By” field to be copied down to any files that are added to our Purchase Order. When Invoice documents are added to the Purchase order, the Requested By field from the Purchase Order will be copied down and associated to the Invoice document. I can then create a filter to show all Invoices that are associated to the person defined in the Requested By field.

Next, I can define the fields that show up on the Document Set home page. In our scenario, when the user clicks on the Purchase Order request, these are the fields that show up at the top of the page. See Document Set Home Page screen shot above. Lastly, I can define the default view that shows up on the Home Page. This view defines the columns that will be displayed for the documents that have been associated to the Document Set. In our scenario, these are the fields that will be displayed for the Invoices and other documents that have been added to our Purchase Order. If you look at the Document Set Home Page screen shot above, you will see we have defined a view that includes the PO#, PO Date, Name, Invoice #, Invoice Date, Invoice Amount. This field can include “shared fields” that will be copied down from the PO as well as unique fields that will be related to the Invoice when it is added.

Behind the scenes, Document Sets are a specialized SharePoint Content Type. As a content type, we can define custom SharePoint Designer Workflows that are associated with this content type. For example, we can create a copy of the “out of box” SharePoint Approval workflow that can be used for users to request approval for new Purchase Orders they create. The approval form can be customized to display important data from the Purchase Order so that the Purchase Order can be approved from Outlook without even navigating back into SharePoint.

I hope this overview of Document Sets has given you some idea of the benefits that can be gained by using Document Sets. There are even more benefits that can be leveraged that are not listed here, but hopefully this will get your creative juices flowing to envision how you can use them within your department or workgroup.

Tim CoalsonSharePoint Document Set Primer


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  • Tommy Ryan - March 18, 2015 reply

    Tim, great article! Question for you… I like the idea of the document set adding a standard document(s) each time a new document set is created. That is very handy. My question is… What are your options for managing those standard document(s)? Is it easy to go to one place and update the standard document(s) as a power user?

    tcoalson - March 18, 2015

    Under the Document Set Configuration options heading in the article, there is a screen shot that includes Default Content. You simply browse to the document and select it and it will be added as “default content” when a new document set is created. You can also remove a document from the “default content”. This doesn’t remove the document for existing document sets, but will prevent it from being added to new ones.

    Tommy Ryan - March 18, 2015

    Thanks Tim!

  • Kirk Liemohn - March 19, 2015 reply

    Great reminder of what Document Sets can do, tcoalson. I do feel like they are underused.

    The last time I used them on a project was with SharePoint 2010. One limitation was that you could not use a datasheet view to interact with document set metadata. Tim do you know if the quick edit works with Document Sets in SP 2013?

    Here is a link on limitations in Document Sets in SP2010: It is dated and doesn’t mention the datasheet view limitation, but it has several others. Some of these may have been fixed in SP2013 or even fixed in a SP2010 service pack.

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