Help me file everything perfectly.
October 14, 2009 8:38 AM   Subscribe

A two-parter on an efficient filing system: 1 - if you're running a business with the usual documents and stuff, what is the best filing system in the entire world so that everyone will understand it and know where to look to find stuff. (What kind of labels/titles to use, how to divide physical files etc). 2 - and if I wanted that system to be online, what's the best way to store it all so that they are readily searchable, findable etc.

A wrinkle or two: there are multiple companies but the same employees will be accessing the data (so should 'correspondence' etc be one heading, with different companies underneath, or should each company have its own 'correspondence' etc section);

What about emails, I don't want to print them (waste paper) and I don't want to keep them all indefinitely (taking up precious server space). Convert the relevant emails to pdf?

What about personal stuff? What's the ideal way to sort and file personal stuff.

ps. Please do not concern yourself with legal requirements for keeping data etc, we'll take care of that part separately.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop to Work & Money (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
what is the best filing system in the entire world so that everyone will understand it and know where to look to find stuff.

The alphabet.

(Alternative answer: there isn't one.)

A more detailed response would depend on what kind of business you're in; a doctor's office is going to have different "documents and stuff" than an accounting firm or a warehouse or a garage. And even with that info the answer's really going to depend on how you need to use these records; whether you should sort by business first and then by category or the other way around, well, will your employees need to work with a bunch of correspondence for all the businesses at once, or do they generally work on one company's stuff in several categories and then move on to working on company B's stuff?

if I wanted that system to be online, what's the best way to store it all so that they are readily searchable, findable etc.
There's an entire industry devoted to this question; as above there is no one right answer.

(In general however, digitizing paper records can be surprisingly complicated and expensive, especially if you get into any sort of OCR; for small businesses it would probably not be worthwhile unless you have specific needs for which digital searches are imperative.)

What about emails, I don't want to print them (waste paper) and I don't want to keep them all indefinitely (taking up precious server space). Convert the relevant emails to pdf?

This would be a lot of work for no good purpose. PDFs take much, much more storage space than keeping the emails in their existing format, and are less readily searchable. Buy a couple of backup drives or a dvd burner or better yet both, and archive your old email there. Disk space is cheap.
posted by ook at 9:01 AM on October 14, 2009

Best answer: I worked at a large consulting firm in the early 90s that had a great naming system/taxonomy: 00000_abc_nameofdoc_yyyymmv1 where...
- 00000 was a unique set of numbers that represented the client we were doing the work for, but which could also represent industry, type of document (marketing docs always started 000, boilerplate/best practice docs from which a consultant could lift sanitized information started 777, internal docs always started with 999), or other useful information,
- abc represented the three initials of the lead person who wrote/created the document (e.g., bho would be documents created by Barak H. Obama)
- nameofdoc was what the title of the doc was (e.g., boardpres was a presentation to the board, innovbrainstorm was a brainstorming document, techtrends was a white paper on technology trends, etc.),
- and yyyymm was the date the doc was created (year first so that it shows up in chronological order in an electronic file folder). We only rarely used day (yyymmdd), but often added v1, v1.1, v2 as documents underwent revisions (so, yyyymmddv1.1 would be an example of the entire date/version field).

This system served all the clients, industries, approaches, end users, and creators really well, and almost everyone I know who l left that company went on to use this system for their own business filing needs. I still use it for all my work and personal needs.

A key to the success of this (or any) system, is putting the doc/file name in the document itself so that when people have hard copies they know what they're looking at, and communicating the system to everyone.

The only thing I would tweak would be what piece of information you put first in that string, and this depends completely on how *most* of the people in your company(ies) will access the information. If you have a cyclical business where the year is how you think of looking for something--for example, "I need the 2009 taxes and could care less about any other tax year"-- then year trumps the other parts of the name and should be put first so it's the first piece of information in a list of files.
posted by cocoagirl at 9:29 AM on October 14, 2009

People still file things? :)

Organizing takes a huge amount of time. Depending on the nature of your work, the cost associated with flat-out losing something, the volume of files, the type of server you've got, might be able to get by with a fairly minimal one-or-two layer deep directory structure for each "project" plus either google desktop search or the mac's spotlight. It's only chaotic until you learn to let go and let the machine do the thinking for you.

Descriptive filenames are important. Maintaining metadata (creation/edit dates) is important. Having individual directories stay under a few hundred files is important. Other than that, let the computer catalog stuff.

I toss a lot of stuff into a big directory and just search it with spotlight. On average, I can pull up information about six thousand times faster than my boss who uses a hierarchical folder/subfolder system for storing documents. Cmd+space, then type a few characters and click whichever is the right file. Fine for managing the 10K+ word/pdf/excel/powerpoint documents and bazillions of emails I have.

Again, any solution is going to need to be tailored to the sort of work you do.
posted by paanta at 10:07 AM on October 14, 2009

>or the mac's spotlight

Spotlight won't direct me to the correct file unless I remember the precise filename/content, including the correct spacing or lack thereof. For instance, I have files in various locations with the word "needlepoint" in either the filename or the body of the document, or both. Yet spotlight finds none of these when I search on "point."
posted by cocoagirl at 10:30 AM on October 14, 2009

Best answer: Emails: The last few versions of Adobe Acrobat Pro have had a nifty addin that will convert Outlook emails to PDF, complete with an index page. Also includes all attachments. Works pretty swell. Once archived, dump the emails and drag the resulting PDF archive to the storage directory.
posted by webhund at 12:17 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I loved the system cocoagirl is talking about but when I implemented it for a boss, she could never find anything ever again. Unfortunately, I agree with ook, there isn't one, and I've been looking for 20 years.

In terms of online, since I installed Google desktop, I have had SO much more luck in finding my own usually welll-filed electronic files than ever before. I don't know if that translates to a business though. Also, having just finished a course where the paperwork seemed more important than the product, having a register of files (in Excel for heaven's sake) with version control embedded in the file, and noted in the register seemed to be the "professional standard". Unfortunately, this seemed to take much longer than it was worth.
posted by b33j at 3:09 PM on October 14, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you (mostly) all. I must remember not to stick my tongue so firmly in my cheek next time, I was just looking for some recommendations and ideas of stuff that's worked for some of you. Serves me right for not saying that if that's what I wanted right?

cocoagirl, your system sounds awesome and I think I'll implement a version of it with a few amendments otherwise it might, I suspect, drive me crazy. Putting dates in a file name is great for those times when all you can remember is that you did it last week or on your birthday etc. Funny how our memories work.

webhund - thanks for that tip, I've got Pro but wasn't aware of that feature, I'll start playing around with it this afternoon and see how well it serves my purposes, it sounds like it could be perfect.

Hopefully I can maintain whatever system I settle on, I tend to be great at organising everything that one time... and then it all slowly descends into chaos again in a year or two.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 6:35 AM on October 15, 2009

« Older Where did my Little Java Link Go ?   |   Mac "vs" puzzle games please! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.