Beyond A to Z: Filing Tips to Organize Better

I am not a naturally organized person.  Last weekend, my husband watched me paw through a laundry basket of essentially all black clothes looking for a black tank top and the two I came up with weren’t the right one.  But I have to be organized at work, because others need to find things quickly and don’t want to look in a massive folder called “Erica’s Files” to get to things we all use.  We’ve developed a system in RMA that everyone follows to name and organize files so that we all have more luck finding things we need when we need them.  Here are some of the methods we use.

Retention-conscious Filing

Our first tip is to use your retention schedule to create your file structure.  Most of the record series listed are very specific and could be used to organize folders.  You can use big buckets to encompass related record series together in bigger aggregates as you work up in the structure.  For example, perhaps you create a folder on your shared drive for your accounting department, simply named “Accounting.”  Under that, you could have folders for “Accounts Receivable,” “Accounts Payable,” “Audit Records,” and “Capital Asset Records.”  Then, within each of those folders, you would have the record series you find on the retention schedule.  So the folder with the “Accounts Payable” title would then have folders for “GR1025-26a AP & Disbursement Records – FE + 3,” “GR1025-26b Capital Equipment and Fixed Assets – FE + 3,” “GR1025-26c Transmittal of Funds Reports – FE of period covered by report + 3,” and “GR1025-26d AP for Bond Funded Projects – FE of last payment + 3.”  You could even have folders within these record series folders to break things down by fiscal year.

Including the record number and retention period in the folder name really makes things easier when it’s time to do disposition.  Using the example above, instead of cherry picking items that are eligible for disposal out of a huge folder of mixed items, you can simply drag an entire folder for a fiscal year to the recycle bin, knowing that all items stored in it are eligible for disposition because the retention period has been met.  Some might argue that using the record number and retention period makes the folder name too long; you are absolutely free to not include them, or just include the retention period if you think that’s more helpful to users – the record number will likely not mean much to most.

Naming Conventions

Another tip to organizing better is to establish and use some naming conventions.  By this, I mean have some standards for how things are named and stick with them.  For example, you might have a bunch of meeting minutes that you simply name with the date the meeting took place, and everyone has been employing a month/month-day/day-year/year/year/year naming convention.  Sure, that will work, but to your computer, those aren’t dates, but just a bunch of numbers to put in order.  So the minutes from February 5, 2016 will come before the minutes from November 7, 2011 – which makes the system harder to browse.  By using the ISO standard 8601 and naming files in year/year/year/year-month/month-day/day format, everything will be in chronological order.  The same applies to using acronyms or otherwise shortening names – make sure everyone in the unit knows what they are and to use them when naming files.

Cross Referencing

The final tip we have is to use cross references for other logical filing places instead of having another copy filed.  Sometimes when you’re organizing a file structure, there will be two or more logical places for a file to be located.  When this happens, file in the place that makes the most sense to you and then insert a cross reference in the other logical places that points to the location where the file actually is.  For example, in RMA we have a folder for schedule reviews, where we store working copies of state schedules and amendments while we review them during the recertification process.  Additionally, we have a folder of checklists and review guidance that are used during a review.  We don’t want to store the checklists in the schedule review folder, since they’re blank forms, so we have a cross reference in the schedule review folder that links to the actual place on our shared drive where the checklists are kept.

A final word on organizing – be specific and be consistent.  A consistent approach will mean there’s less need for individual interpretation and that means less frustration among your users.  If you have any other filing tips, leave them below in the comments!

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