A-Z Filing is Not a Best Practice

I was surprised and amused recently to learn that a well-known productivity guru is a proponent of alphabetical filing systems for individuals – i.e., an “A-Z” arrangement for reference materials. In addition, he advocates having on hand “lots of fresh folders” and a rule of thumb to reorder folders when the number on hand drops below one hundred.

My advice is that if you really have so much filing, it’s time to stop and evaluate what you’re keeping and why. Having fresh file folders on hand to file anything that looks interesting is just ridiculous, not to mention a waste of time and resources. And if you are doing this, when was the last time you looked at that article you saved on gardening?  And do you even remember where you filed it? G for gardening? P for pruning? F for fertilizer?

Paper filing is still necessary in many offices, but the push is toward electronic filing, and rightly so, since there is less waste. Regardless if you’re using paper or electronic or both, either method should follow the same principles. That is, filing should be based on a classification system that has less than 25 root folders with sub-folders relating to the function and subject of the root.

Let’s take, for example, administrative files. Regardless of your business, your office has administrative files. These files fall under the broad categories (roots) of:

  • Administration
  • Equipment 
  • Facilities
  • Finance
  • Human Resources
  • Information Technology.

Simply stated, these six root directories cover ALL of your administrative filing.

Under each of these categories, you will have a few or several main (primary) categories or subjects of records. And under this, you may have many cases of each subject. Look at employee files, for instance. Whether paper or electronic, employee files are cases of the subject “employee files” that belongs under the main category “human resources.” If you’re filing employee files electronically, your electronic directory might look like this:

  • Human resources
    •                 Employee files
        •                                 Clark, John
        •                                 Smith, Susan

Under “Clark, John,” for instance, file all documentation relating to John Clark, regardless if they’re Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, scanned images, or some other file format. This way, everything to do with John Clark is contained in his “employee file” under the broad category of human resources. Having all documents together like this makes it easy to apply retention schedules.

If you do not contain your files in a hierarchical system, there’s a strong probability that your document(s) might end up in an incorrect folder. And if it’s in an incorrect folder (because the overall structure is incorrect), what happens? You end up creating a new folder, one that “you know” you will remember and you file there, but no one else might think to look there. What you’ve just done is duplicated filing and the original folder can no longer be relied upon to contain all documentation. Not only that, you’ve now used more space than necessary to create the new folder (whether electronic or paper).

The bottom line is that filing and managing records is not something that should be taken lightly, since if it’s done incorrectly, repercussions can go beyond just a bad filing system and wasted time and resources. At the very least, integrity of files is lost leaving the system to be unreliable, unusable, unwieldy, out of control, and at the end of the day, a useless waste of space, money, and time.

Next time you plan to file something, whether paper or electronic; ask yourself if the system is actually working for you and the organization. If it’s not, it may be time to call an expert.