|Photo Credit: Jeremy Keith - https://www.flickr.com/photos/adactio/5757457657|
Three years ago, I wrote a piece about organizing your personal electronic life (https://blog.tectonicspeed.com/2017/09/personal-archiving-get-your-shit.html), which I sub-titled “Get Your Shit Together” in an homage to George Carlin’s routine about the last two minutes of your life. (https://youtu.be/LkIqccMRTNo?t=93)
Recently I’ve been thinking about the equivalent process at work. We are dealing with an over-abundance of electronic files on our shared network drives - and I'll wager that it’s similar for most workplaces. (NOTE 1, notes at the end.)
Disclaimer: All of the ideas expressed in this article are my personal statements and opinions, and do not reflect the opinions/statements of the City of Urbana.
Extra Disclaimer: I want to go beyond my boilerplate disclaimer and declare that I am NOT drafting Urbana policy in this article; I am simply writing what I would recommend to anyone.
In this piece I propose simple guidelines for organizing electronic files at work. They’re so simple that your reaction to them will probably be “well, duh” (said in a dismissive tone...) The guidelines are easy, the hard part is sticking to them.
Government records management is a focus here. Governments have pre-defined timelines on how long to keep different sorts of documents, but the same principles apply to all entities. (NOTE 2)
Begin with the End (User) in Mind
With any process, it’s important to focus on your audience and their needs. When managing your personal electronic life, you’re organizing your files for yourself or your direct heirs. At work, think about the next person who will have your job. If that’s too stark, think about anyone on your team who needs to access these files when you’re on vacation. The key is: think about someone other than yourself who needs to deal with your files.
The Four Guidelines to Get Your Shit Together at Work
#1: Classify information first by how long you need to keep it.
Your initial breakdown is between things to keep indefinitely, those with a specific retention period, and what you can delete immediately. Some examples:
- Keep some things forever either because you HAVE to (government land records) or you WANT to (pictures from an employee party). Organize these by topic - see #2.
- Keep some for as long as they are relevant, then dispose of them. Training materials for a computer system? Retain until the system is no longer used, or they’re out of date. Organize these by topic - see #2.
- Purge some information on a rolling basis. Governments have records schedules that govern this, here are some of the retention rules I must follow: vendor invoices (seven years), job applications (two years), and non-trivial e-mail (1 year). (NOTE 3) You may not have such clear-cut rules, but you can probably come up with some guidance for your situations. You will organize this by the type of record it is and then by year - see #2.
#2: Next, classify by topic.
After dividing information by time-frame, arrange it by content:
- Long-term files go into a meaningful hierarchy of topics. (See NOTE 4 for a definition of a “meaningful hierarchy”.)
- Sort records with a specific retention period by the type of record it is and then by year. (4-digit year, please!). (NOTE 5)
- Notice that there’s nothing here about organizing by person! You should not have folders on a shared drive that are named by person, unless the point is to organize information about employees. (NOTE 6)
#3: Archive information so that you can easily access (and recover) it.
Some thoughts on this:
- Centralize your storage. If your office has floppies, CDs, and tape cassettes of old information, you need to go through it now and save what you keep in your central storage. Not only are physical media starting to fail, does your current computer have a floppy drive? A DVD player? If it’s on tape, do you still have a functioning tape player? And grab those files from desktop computers before it’s too late - due to ransomware, PC replacements, or plain old disk failure. (NOTE 7) After you move everything into your centralized storage structure …
- Backup your data. (I know - “Duh” - right?) Here's specific guidance: be strategic with your backups so that the dynamic files people are currently working on get frequent full backups, which are faster to restore. Long-term storage changes less, so create separate backup sets with less frequent full backups and more incremental ones. This is OK because long-term storage won’t need to be restored as quickly.
- Cloud storage sites like Google Drive and Dropbox are for short-term file-sharing only. If you’re responsible for an entity’s records, then you need to worry about employees leaving files in file-sharing tools. Not because they might get hacked (that’s distantly possible, but unlikely), but because that person might leave your organization and you will lose access to those files. If a person set up a cloud account on their own (and let’s HOPE they used their work email), then accessing it can be difficult or impossible once they’re gone. And that’s assuming someone else knows about the storage!
- Avoid proprietary file formats. Especially with older files, export to a standardized format. For example, PDFs are good for text files but don’t overlook the humble rich text file (.rtf) for easy searching. Render media files into a long-term format, and then consider getting rid of the proprietary format used as input. (Photoshop files are massive compared to the more useful rendered image.) For video projects, get rid of everything but the final cut.
You are tracking information to keep it, but also to know when you can get rid of it - that’s why you break it down by year. So, go ahead and get rid of it. (NOTE 8) Yes, storing all files forever is now possible, but making it useful requires ongoing efforts, like migrating old formats and fusing search capabilities. You need to retain records for an appropriate amount of time, but too many files will overwhelm the management of information. A final reason: files can contain all matter of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) that you’re responsible for securing.
Closing Thoughts – and a Suggestion for Hopeless Situations
Well, that’s it. Nothing revolutionary. It takes work to stay on top of information (NOTE 9) but you do save time looking for things. More importantly, you are doing a tremendous service to your co-workers by getting rid of unimportant files and organizing what you leave behind.
What if you buy into all of the ideas above, but your information is hopelessly disorganized – either because of your neglect, or because you inherited a mess? Then you need my 80/20 approach, which assumes that 20% of information is useful, and 80% is not.
- Take a quick pass through the folder structure, and grab folders that seem important and MOVE them into your new organization structure. Your goal here is to find the 20% that’s obviously useful.
- After you’ve gotten the 20%, move everything that remains into an “Old Data” folder. Yep, just move it over exactly as it’s organized now. (So the “John” directory from NOTE 6 will now be the sub-directory “Old Data/John”.)
- Over time, if you go looking for a file in the “Old Data” structure, then make the effort to move it to the new structure, and maybe poke around for parallel structures of data. (Hmm… John had that project stored here, maybe he’s got other projects’ history stored similarly?)
- After a few years (depending on your records retention rules), conduct a more thorough review of what’s left, and purge appropriately.
NOTE 1: In the 1990s, more offices began storing electronic documents. At the time, the volume was low enough that not much thought was put into structure – and hard drive storage was expensive, so many files were saved off to disk. Now we generate gigabytes of files on a daily basis. Take a look at this graph of data accumulation… and then take note that it starts at 2010!! The line from 1990 to 2010 wouldn’t even register above the X axis.
NOTE 2: Tax returns, contracts, employee information – everything has a minimal life span and then it can be purged. Since all of these could contain Personally Identifiable Information (PII), they should be purged, too.
NOTE 3: See this document, page 4-5 for some examples from Illinois. https://www.cyberdriveillinois.com/publications/pdf_publications/lr34.pdf
NOTE 4: What is a “meaningful hierarchy”? How about this: no folder should have more items than you can see on a single screen, meaning that “if you need to scroll, then you need to cull.” (I just made that up!) While I’m on a roll, another rule: a folder should have sub-folders or files, but not a mix of both, because “file and folder mix like oil and water.” (OK, I’ll stop now.)
NOTE 5: During the several months I was writing this piece, we rolled out a process for long-term records storage at our office. We didn't have any money for a Records Management System, so we simply created a separate "Long-Term Storage" drive with a folder structure that exactly followed our Records Retention Schedule. The folder has read-only access to everyone except Systems Administrators, who act as data librarians and do a quality-control check to make sure that data moving to storage is organized by series and year. Moving those static records out of the actively used network drives will shrink their size, which is important for the back-up strategy discussed in guideline #3. It will also simplify our future Records Disposal request process, as we hopefully just need to look at the Record Series rules, and file Disposal requests on a yearly basis. (If it's 2020, and we have to keep the files for 2 years, then we know we can purge the 2017 files.)
NOTE 6: When I started at my job, I saw many folders on the shared network drives that were just someone’s name. The problem, of course, was that no one knew how “John” had organized his stuff (usually he hadn’t…) or if John’s stuff duplicated files elsewhere (often, it did), and most importantly, no one ever went into that information (either because “That’s John’s stuff!” or “Who’s John?”) If you have a similar situation at work, see my advice at the end of this post about the 80/20 organization process.
NOTE 7: If you have information that MUST be kept for a long time (e.g. some government records must be kept permanently) then a recommended format is microfiche! There’s logic to this, because it’s a durable format and all you really need is a light source and a magnifier to read them.
NOTE 8: If you are paranoid about getting rid of things, then create a “Ready to Purge” archive. Move things there that you should be purging.
NOTE 9: Applying the second law of thermodynamics to information storage: without constant organization, shared file storage spontaneously evolves towards the state with maximum entropy.