digital file systemIt used to be that creating a filing system meant color coding your file folders, and then organizing them alphabetically or chronologically.  In some instances, this may still be reasonable. However, today’s small businesses and home offices are now a lot more dependent on technology.  Most record-keeping is now electronic, so you may need to consider both the system that resides on your computer in addition to the one that resides in your filing cabinets (or in those piles on your desktop or on the floor).

There are a lot of different ways to organize your files; the key is to create a file structure that allows you to find important information quickly and easily. Depending upon your business needs, these files may be paper or digital and they may reside in a filing cabinet, on your computer, on a network or in the cloud. What works best for you and what industry standards do you need to apply?

The first step to organizing your digital files is knowing and documenting what you need to keep and why. 

This means that you need to create record retention guidelines if they do not already exist.  Typically, information needs to be kept for legal and accounting purposes.  The specifics will vary depending upon your particular circumstances.  Your CPA or legal counsel are both excellent sources to help you begin establishing these guidelines.  The Streamlined Office offers an example of a Record Retention Schedule that includes IRS reference information.

The second step to organizing your digital files is to create a digital file structure. 

Once you are very clear on what type of information or documents need to be retained and for how long, you can begin this process.  Again, there is no one right way to create your file infrastructure.  Create clear, simple and logical folders based on categories appropriate to your business and any industry specific standards that must be followed.

A good starting point is to divide your information into categories based on department/subject, project or client matter.  For instance, every office typically requires a folder hierarchy for areas such as Accounting, Finance, Legal, Business Documents, Insurance, Medical etc.  Occasionally, organizing by geographic regions is applicable.

In conjunction with creating the folder structure, folder and file naming conventions should be established, documented and distributed to everyone who will be using the system.  Ignore infinite articles in a business name (a, the), consider using an abbreviated letter sequence if this is how the business is most readily identified (CBS versus Central Broadcasting System), consider organizing client folders by placing the surname (last name) first, and avoid the use of titles (Dr. Mr.).

When it comes to file naming, you are not bound to the limited space once demanded by paper file folder tabs.  Be as descriptive as possible to allow for ease in future location and searching.  Use lowercase only, except perhaps with proper names.  Avoid the use of symbols, punctuation marks, file separators and white space in file names.  If you have multiple revisions of a file, consider using major and minor revision strategies or add the date to the file name.  Just remember to avoid using special characters such as “/” in dates.

The third step to organizing your digital files is to move your existing files into the folder structure that you have just created.

Rename any files that do not adhere to your documented folder and file naming conventions.

The fourth step to organizing your digital files is system maintenance. 

Weed and transfer old files into the new structure.  Ensure naming conventions are being adhered to.  Document any changes to the structure or naming conventions that were created in step two.  Check for duplication and make sure unnecessary and out of date folders and documents are weeded out of your new system on a regular basis and according to your record retention guidelines.

The fifth step to organizing your digital files is to be sure you have appropriate security and backup systems in place.

data securityThis may include setting permissions and access to the information, ensuring the presence of a Firewall, Malware (anti-virus) protection, and completing routine software updates. Where and how to back up information will be determined by the frequency of data change, your retention guidelines, and industry standards to name and few.

For many small business owners, determining where to start with digital organization might be overwhelming and confusing. Hopefully, the information provided here will have you well on your way to doing it yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable that you can create an efficient filing system that you can maintain, contact The Streamlined Office for assistance!