Documenting in Detail: Organizing for Access

FilesAndFolders.png by FrancoG <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:FrancoGG>Regardless of which publishing platform you choose, you’ll need to organize your documentation in similar ways in order to facilitate access by those who need it (and prevent it by those who should not be privy, in the case of sensitive or confidential information). The options available for organizing and granting/restricting access will change depending on which publishing platform you’ve selected. However, the principles and general approach remain invariant regardless of your particular choice.

Essential Elements

While you could put all of your documents in one folder and grant access to everyone who needs them by assigning permissions on that top level directory, such a “one big heap” approach to file organization puts the burden of finding the relevant documentation on the user, requiring them to hunt around manually or search by keyword for the relevant document, decreasing the chances your documentation will actually be referenced. As a result, you will be well served to create a bit more structure. Here are the essential elements for effective organization:
  • Filing schema: A clear, consistent, shared filing structure in which to store documents.
  • Permissions: A set of role-based permissions controlling access to the filing structure.
  • Naming convention: A clear, consistent naming convention for the folders and documents in the filing structure.
  • Index: A table of contents and/or index to catalog the documents in the filing structure.
In this article, we'll concentrate on developing a framework for creating a filing schema, which will provide the basis for assigning permissions, filing documents, and creating an index, topics that will be covered in later installments.

Creating the Filing Schema

The purpose of a filing structure is to segment documents into logical categories which serve two functions: (1) Expediting locating documents; (2) Easing assignment of inherited permissions to control document access. To realize the benefit of those two objectives, it’s important to follow some consistent segmentation schema. The best choice depends on many factors, so will be determined by your organizational circumstances. Following are some of the most useful filing structure schema alternatives:
  • Organization: Folders mirror the corporate structure, recapitulating the organization chart from division to department to work-group.
  • Process: Folders mirror ongoing operational processes, independent of organizational structure.
  • Project: Folders mirror the defined projects in which the organization is actively engaged.
  • Category: Folders represent other categories relevant to the organization
  • Combination: A combination of the previous alternatives.
In my experience, a combination approach, thoughtfully & consistently applied, works well, as typically the single-perspective schemas become too cumbersome except in very simple use cases, since any organization has all of the perspectives more or less in play at all times.

Example: Functional Organization

For example, a traditional, functionally structured organization may create a shared filing system which follows the Organization structure down to the department level, then switch to Process and Project folders within department.
  • Traditional Co., Inc.
    • Line of Business
      • Marketing
        • Processes
        • Projects
      • Engineering
      • Manufacturing
      • Sales
      • ...
    • Support Services
      • Accounting
      • Finance
      • Human Resources
      • Maintenance
      • Information Technology
      • ...
    • Leadership
      • ...

Example: Project/Matrix Organization

A project-based or matrix organization may have a filing schema with both Organization and Project schemas at the top level, with function-oriented documentation organized by Department within the top Operations folder and cross-functional projects delineated within the top-level Projects folder.
  • McBain Consulting
    • Operations
      • Marketing
      • Accounting
      • Finance
      • Human Resources
      • Information Technology
      • ...
    • Projects
      • BigName Client A — Major Initiative
      • BigName Client B — Milking For Money
      • BigName Client C — Cleaning Up After Last Time
      • ...

Example: Network Organization

A flat or network organization may take a more systems-oriented view and opt for putting Process and Projects at the top level, breaking Process down into ongoing operational areas and Projects into time-limited initiatives.
  • NebuloCo
    • Processes
      • Mission, Identity & Vision Definition
      • Market Research & Strategy
      • Value Proposition Design & Development
      • Marketing & Sales
      • Customer Empathy & Success
      • Human Resource Cultivation
      • Financial Resource Stewardship
    • Projects
      • Boil the Ocean 2016
      • Disruptive Innovation #7
      • Ultimate Mobile, Social, Local, Crowdsource Platform v2.02
      • Next Killer App
      • ...

Naming Conventions

Once you have a filing structure in place based on your chosen schema, you can begin filing documents. In doing so, employing clear, descriptive folder and file names helps identify their contents easily. While full-text indexing and searching of documents has made descriptive naming seemingly less essential than it once was, the proliferation of electronic documents still makes the practice worthwhile since when a search produces many relevant documents, expressive naming will narrow the set faster. The following naming conventions are recommended:

Use Descriptive Names

Use names descriptive of the content of the folder or document. For example, an outline of a speech to be given to the Rotary Club is better titled 2016-05-12 Speech to Evanston Rotary Club.doc than Speech.doc.

Format Dates YYYY-MM-DD

Start the name with a date in YYYY-MM-DD (International Standards Organization 8601) date format when dates are included in names to allow for chronological sorting. For example, if saving meeting minutes by date, enter in 2016-02-03 not 2-3-2016, as the computer will not sort the latter by date properly.

Zero-Pad Numbers

Pad numbers with one or more leading zeroes to allow for sorting, both in dates and in other numeric sequences. For example, if numbering sequential documents, pad with zeroes "My Document 01", "My Document 02", ..., as the computer will sort "My Document 10" before "My Document 9" but after "My Document 09".

Prepend Non-alphabetic Characters to Force Sorting

If you prefer to control file and folder sort order for navigational clarity, consider starting names with non-alphabetic characters. Most non-alphanumeric keyboard characters sort before letters and numbers so, for example, starting a file or folder name with an underscore [ _ ] or exclamation point [ ! ] will typically put it at the top of the list when sorted in ascending order. Different file systems sort slightly differently however, so you may have to experiment.

Getting items to sort at the end of a list is trickier. Typically, you have to resort to using non-keyboard characters from the extended Unicode set. These characters must be entered by copying/pasting from another source, such as Windows Character Map or MacOS Character Viewer. Many of these extended characters still sort before letters, however. (My favorite extended character for forcing items to the top of a list is the bullet [ • ]). There are those extended characters that will sort to the end of the list, however. For this, Greek letters can be useful. Omega [ ω ] is a semantically appropriate character to use, though aesthetically I prefer Phi [ φ ].

When employing non-alphanumeric names, avoid restricted characters frequently used as filepath delimiters or search operators: \ / | ? : * " < >
 

With the basic filing structure in place and documents filed to share, you can begin assigning access permissions and creating an index to ease navigation. We'll cover these topics in future articles. In the meantime, please let me know what your favored filing system looks like using the comments section below.

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