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Nomenclature 101: Best Practices for Setting Up a Filing System

By - Source: Toms IT Pro

Credit: Shutterstock/NiratCredit: Shutterstock/NiratMore small businesses are using shared drives, which means many users must navigate internal filing systems. In a way, this shared drive system is a throwback to physical filing cabinets. When paper ruled secretaries were experts at setting up internal filing systems with established nomenclatures. These systems are what made it possible for many people to intuitively navigate. Make sure your filing system is up to snuff by following a few simple rules.

MORE: Best Apps for Getting Organized

Avoid common naming convention pitfalls

The naming conventions you develop will naturally depend on the type of industry you're in and the type of data you're categorizing. For our purposes, we'll be outlining basic best practices for filing systems, but many of the same principles can be applied to software implementation and inventory systems.

No symbols

Avoid using symbols, like & or @ in any file name, and only use them in folder names if they are used officially within other areas of the company. For example, if a department is called Accounting & Finance by your company, using an ampersand for their departmental folder makes sense. If, on the other hand, a department is officially called Social Media and Marketing, you should not abbreviate the "and" with an ampersand. When employees know that a filing system or software system uses official language for departments and projects it's much easier for them to search for things.

If having symbols on the names of specific folders poses a problem in the future, it's easy enough to change that, since ideally your system would include them sparingly. For file names, on the other hand, symbols should never be used. Using symbols in file names makes searching difficult and naming inconsistent, and if future programming cannot handle symbols, finding and renaming hundreds or thousands of files would be a monumental task.

No abbreviations

Initials and shortened versions of words should not be used to name files or items unless they are broadly used throughout your industry. For example, no retailer would ever have a folder called "Stock Keeping Unit Lists", because everyone in the industry uses the term SKU. In this case it would be proper to label the folder "SKU Lists". On the other hand, many companies develop their own internal shorthand for departments and projects, and those should be avoided in a filing system. A company might internally refer to a project with a client named "The Creative Group" as "the TCG project".

That's fine in conversation, but naming an actual folder "the TCG project" is a fail. An employee who begins working 10 years after "the TCG project" has wrapped (and long after people are still talking about it regularly) might be tasked with finding information on a past external client called "The Creative Group", and if they searched that term nothing would come up.

Always remember that you're not just creating a filing system for today's users, you're also creating it for future employees.

Create a policy on spaces

This is hotly debated topic and probably the hardest thing for users to get used to, but it's technically still considered best practice to avoid using spaces when you name files. Even if all the systems and processes your company currently uses can handle spaces in file names, you never know what might happen in the future. Down the line there might be a reason for someone within your company to use command-line interfaces, write scripts or utilize additional file systems that don't allow for spaces.

It's highly likely that this will be a nonissue in the future, and many people feel that even now it's unnecessary to eschew spaces. If you choose to allow users to include spaces in folder and file names that's fine, but it's important to make an informed decision. The worst thing you can do is have no clear policy about spaces and have some users including them, others omitting them and others still using the classic underscore replacement. Whatever decision you come to regarding spaces, make sure there is consistency.

Establish a standardized hierarchical structure

The more you standardize your filing system the easier it will be for users to file things and find things. Developing a basic hierarchical structure is a key to maintaining a system that works long-term. Of course, every organization is different so there's no one-size-fits-all approach that works for everyone, but this basic structure is a good place to start.

First Tier

The easiest way to develop the first tier of your hierarchy is to look at your company's corporate structure. Most centralized businesses organize their files by department, and that's a good place to start. Companies with multiple locations that are independently managed might filter by location first and then by department second.

Second Tier

Under primary departmental folders you should list the overarching project categories each department handles. For an accounting department, you might have categories like taxes, payroll, balance sheets, budgets, annual financial reports, quarterly financial reports, payment processing, invoicing and bill paying.

Third Tier

Third tier organization is typically time oriented. Whether you divide your files by calendar year, fiscal year or quarter depends largely on the department and the company. It's best to consult with department heads on this matter before setting something up, as the finance department may operate on a fiscal year basis and shipping may prefer calendar year and month folders.

Fourth Tier

The fourth tier includes the actual files, which ideally should be named consistently throughout your organization. Some companies require file names of certain types to contain date information. For example, it makes sense for time sensitive things like monthly budget reports to be labeled in a way that indicates the date. Rather than naming a file "June Budget Report" users may opt for "Budget Report 0617" to indicate that the report is for June 2017.

Bottom Line

It doesn't matter how well-conceived you think your filing system is if no one else can navigate it. Miscellaneous folders and unfiled items are a surefire sign that something isn't working, so if you see those popping up you may want to reach out and find out why people aren't using your system. 

Maintaining proper nomenclature and filing can take some work at first, and breaking people of habits, like filing by person instead of project, can be challenging, but it's worth it in the long run.

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