10 Ways to Keep Your Digital Files Organized

File Management Tips for Digital Files

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Well-organized digital files. Image (c) Susan Ward / Dave Mcleod

Keeping track of your electronic documents can be quite a chore in today's "wired" world.

In addition to storing documents locally on desktops, laptops or mobile devices more and more businesses are using the cloud for basic business applications and file storage. (See Why Cloud Computing Is Ideal for Small Businesses and 5 Disadvantages of Cloud Computing.)

Further complicating the storage issue is the need for many businesses to share documents between employees - within an office this is typically accomplished by using a file server or network attached storage device (NAS).

If shared mobile access is required, documents can be stored in the cloud and shared by assigning access permissions.

Organization is the Key

Wherever the documents are stored it is important to keep them organized and up-to-date. The goal of electronic file management is to ensure that you can find what you're looking for, even if you're looking for it years after its creation.

Most business folks have at one time or another been in the embarrassing position of having a customer call and not being able to quickly locate the relevant invoice or other important customer documents. Equally annoying is scrambling around at year-end trying to find documents pertaining to company accounts for the accountant or even worse, the taxman.

Proper organization of electronic documents is especially critical in a shared environment - if one of your employees is absent (temporarily or permanently!) you should be able to easily locate any documents created or managed by that person.

(Note that potential loss of data issues with disgruntled, departing employees is one more reason to protect your business data. See 6 Rules of Business Data Protection).

These file management tips will help you keep your files accessible:

1. Use the default installation folders for program files.

Use the default file locations when installing application programs.

Under Windows, by convention application program files reside under the (Drive Letter:)->Program Files directory. Installing applications elsewhere is confusing and unnecessary. 

2. One place for all documents.

Place all documents under a single "root" folder.  For a single user in a Windows environment the default location is the My Documents folder. 

In a file sharing environment try to do the same - created a single root folder (called "Shared Documents" for example) and store all documents in sub folders inside the root folder.  Having a single location for all documents makes it easier to find things and to run backups and archives.

3. Create folders in a logical hierarchy.

These are the drawers of your computer’s filing cabinet, so to speak. Use plain language to name your folders; you don’t want to be looking at this list of folders in the future and wondering what “TFK” or whatever other interesting abbreviation you invented means.

4. Nest folders within folders.

Create other folders within these main folders as need arises.

For instance, a folder called “Invoices” might contain folders called “2013”, “2012” and “2011”. A folder named for a client might include the folders "customerdata" and "correspondence". The goal is to have every file in a folder rather than having a bunch of orphan files listed.

Do not, however, create complex, deeply-layered folder structures - where possible use descriptive file names instead.

5. Follow the file naming conventions.

Some operating systems (such as Unix) do not allow spaces in file or folder names, so avoid this if your computing environment is mixed - instead use the underscores as a delimiter (e.g. Doe_John_Proposal.doc.) Other characters such as / ? < > \ : * | " ^ are also prohibited in file or folder names under Windows.

Use descriptive file names for easy identification and retrieval but don't go overboard - file/path names have length limits which vary between operating systems. Under Windows the maximum full path length for a file (e.g. the drive letter + folder names + file name) is 260 characters. Use common abbreviations wherever possible.

6. Be specific.

Give files logical, specific names and include dates in file names if possible. The goal when naming files is to be able to tell what the file is about without having to open it and look. So if the document is a letter to a customer reminding him that payment is overdue, call it something like "overdue_20120115"; rather than something like “letter”. How will you know who the letter is to without opening it?

If you are sharing files via email or portable devices you may want to have the file name include more specific information, since the folder information will not be included with the shared file.  For example if your document resides in My Documents\Invoices\2014\Customers\Doe_John_20140416.doc and the file is shared or emailed all the recipient will see is the Doe_John_20140416.doc and may not be able to tell that the file is a customer invoice without opening it.

7. File as you go.

The best time to file a document is when you first create it. So get in the habit of using the "Save As" dialogue box to file your document as well as name it, putting it in the right place in the first place.

8. Order your files for your convenience.

If there are folders or files that you use a lot, force them to the top of the file list by renaming them with a ! or an AA at the beginning of the file name.

9. Cull your files regularly.

Sometimes what's old is obvious as in the example of the folder named "Invoices" above. If it's not, keep your folders uncluttered by clearing out the old files.

Do not delete business related files unless you are absolutely certain that you will never need the file again. Instead, in your main collection of folders under your root folder, create a folder called "Old" or "Inactive" and move old files into it when you come across them.

10. Back up your files regularly.

Whether you're copying your files onto another drive or onto tape, it's important to set up and follow a regular back up regimen. See The 3 Steps to a Successful Backup System.

Good File Management Makes Finding What You Want Easy

Managing electronic documents should be part of an overall document management strategy for your business. A proper document management plan should include all aspects of handling documents, including storage, retrieval, backups, and security.

The search function is a wonderful thing but it will never match the ease of being able to go directly to a folder or file. If you follow these file management tips consistently, even if you don't know where something is, you know where it should be - a huge advantage when it comes to finding what you're looking for.  Good file management practices will save your business time and money.

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