We’ve all been there – finding ourselves lost in a jumble of documents. But with a little forethought you will be able to create an effective set of folders for your documents to clean up that clutter and get on with what it is you do best.
The first thing we need to understand is what to keep; once we’re clear about just what a record is, it’s time to create a folder structure that will provide you with a way of capturing, accessing and disposing of them.
There are a number of names that we call these ‘folder structures’ – a thesaurus, a classification scheme, a business file plan, a records tree, a hierarchy of terms – all attempt to explain a set of pointers to or containers for information that we can navigate into and out of – so that we can access our information. If possible, we can also add retention and security criteria to these folders, but we’ll be looking at those issues another time. For the moment, we’ll focus on the backbone of records management – the folder structure. Once that’s in place we’ll be able to develop further protocols to ensure our information’s integrity is maintained and we don’t suffer from overload.
Folder structures can be set up in a number of areas. In the Windows environment they can be viewed and updated via Windows Explorer. To access this right-click on the ‘Start’ button and choose Windows Explorer or click on ‘My Computer’ then the ‘Folders’ button on the menu bar. Adding folders involves right-clicking in the folder you’d like a new folder in (the parent) then choosing New/Folder. This will create the child folder below it, which you’ll then need to name. The Mac and Linux environments have taken a similar approach to Microsoft, and there are many other areas where you’ll find navigable folder structures such as the Open Directory.
Initially we’ll need to decide on whether we want a deep or a shallow hierarchy. For instance, do we mind burrowing seven folders deep for our information, or would we rather have a list of fifteen folders at the top of the hierarchy? These decisions will depend on your work environment and what you and your staff can cope with, but best practice would restrict the levels to three or four and for there to be a maximum of ten folders in each list. Though we don’t need to follow this rigidly, it’s a good idea to keep it in mind when developing the structure so it doesn’t become too hard to find information in the hierarchy or ineffective because there are too many records in each folder.
Incorporating the folder structure into MS Outlook – so that we can drag and drop emails, including their attachments, directly into the folder structure – is possible, but from 2002 until the 2007 version, you’re restricted to using the Outlook shortcut toolbar on the left – which has a maximum of two levels – and it requires some effort to set it up. Otherwise you can go ‘File/Save as’ to each email individually in .msg format to its respective folder.
Since emails have become such a large aspect of our working lives, and therefore the record and evidence of what we do, the importance of incorporating them into our body of records cannot be underestimated.
Next we need to develop the folder structure itself. It’s best to do this with good old pen and paper at least for the top two levels. Constructing it with the help of some colleagues or friends is helpful to ensure it’s understandable to anyone. We need to ask ourselves the following questions:
What activities and processes do we need to do into order for our business to provide services or products to our customers?
It means going right back to the basics, your cause, the reason for your existence. Why people want you. Once you’ve gotten over the headiness of that, think about separating out those essential functions into ten or so items. For instance, if we’re running the firm Breakneck Bicycle Couriers, the following functions might be put at the top level:
- Communicating internally
- Financial management
- Keeping our staff safe
- Maintaining our stock
- Maintaining our clients
- Managing our business
- Managing our staff – general
- Managing our staff – individuals
- Marketing our business
Within each of these functions we ought to further define our activities. Under ‘Managing our staff – individuals’ or ‘Maintaining our clients’ we could put each of our employee’s or client’s names. For another category, let’s look at ‘Financial management’. Under this level we could have the following activities:
- Accounts and statements
- Asset management
- Benefits and subsidies
- Debt management
What’s important is that everyone agrees with the folder structure, understands it, and ultimately uses it.
An example of a full folder structure has been compiled by the Local Government Group of the Records Management Society. I’ve popped it into an XLS spreadsheet which is formatted for importing into the Information Auditor. Download the Local Government Classification Scheme.
Once this is set up you’re well on your way to successful records management. Find out about further additions you can make to those folders such as adding descriptions to each folder, using the folder structure to avoid too much information piling up around you, and adding security features to folders in a future edition of Information Handyman.