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Part Two: Organizing your digital life

Attention digital hoarders: it's time to clean up your act Add to ...

In this four-part web strategy series, we'll look at smart and easy ways to organize your digital life

Getting your ducks in a row can be tricky, especially if you don't know where your ducks are in the first place.

That's why organizing your files is so important: if a contract or a letter or a spreadsheet goes missing at the wrong time, it could cost you business. And if you waste time hunting for those files, that lost time can cost you money. Even five or ten minutes per person per day can really add up, as we learned in Clever ways to keep your contacts under control.

Ironic as it may seem, the solution to getting organized is taking time out to set up a digital filing system that makes it easy for you and your staff to find what you need, when you need it.

The first thing you need to do is come up with a method that makes sense for your business. Create a framework that defines a folder structure, naming convention and the sort of content belongs where. For example, do you want all of your marketing files in one folder tree (with appropriate sub-folders) and all financial stuff in another, or does it make more sense to put documents of all types attached to a single customer into its own set of folders?

This exercise can't be done in a vacuum. Ms. Kelleher, owner of Toronto-based kAos Group advises having people from different areas of the organization contribute to the structure. "You want people who think strategically, and can think of what the organization will look like in two or three years," she said. They will be able to look critically at the proposed framework and get a sense of whether or not it will work in the future.

It's all very nice to decide on a pretty structure, but how do you remember it? Ms. Kelleher suggests building an "org chart" of your design in a spreadsheet that shows the folders and sub-folders, and allows for notes about things like document naming and classification conventions. That spreadsheet should go into your operations manual and be readily available to everyone. It will serve as a reference if you or a staff member is uncertain about where to file a new document, or where to hunt for an existing one.

Clear file names are also critical, notes Stephanie L. H. Calahan, president and founder of Calahan Solutions, Inc., in her column on Top7Business.com. With modern computer operating systems, we are no longer restricted to cryptic short file names, she notes, so you should now be able to name files in a way that allows you to recognize the document.

But don't go crazy. Microsoft points out in its blog, that extra-long file names are hard to read, and recommends letting the file structure do some of the work. For example, a writer might create a top level folder to contain his or her novel-to-be, with sub-folders for its chapters, and a marketer might make the client name the top level, with sub-folders for various campaigns, and folders under each of them for the various creative components. In either case, the complete path defines the file. For example, a structure like "\my documents\client A\july 2010\commercial script with puppies.docx" tells you all you need to know to identify the document.

Make sure the naming rules are specific, adds Ms. Kelleher. Something as simple as date format (day-month-year vs month-day-year) can easily trip you up (does 5-1-2011 mean Jan 5, or May 1?), as can the order of the components of the name. Should the client name be first ("Smith contract Jan 2011"), or should the first component be the document type ("Contract Smith Jan 2011")?

Software from companies such as Montreal-based document storage and retrieval vendor MultiCIM Technologies can help by letting you put your company's conventions into a file naming template, which its eXadox software then uses when file are created and catalogued. Users don't have to think about conventions, they're automatically applied.

There's no absolute right or wrong answer when selecting those conventions, either. The eXadox website provides a page of links to various document naming guidelines (http://www.exadox.com/en/filenaming-conventions) to prime your thinking, whether or not you use cataloguing software or do the job manually. The important thing is to pick a naming convention, and stick to it.

Now that you've got your folder structure and naming convention, it's time for the hard part. Every new file has to be appropriately named and put in the right place. That bit is easy, with the help of the org chart; shuffling existing files into the right place - that's the pain. "The transition period can create a lot of confusion," Ms. Kelleher says.

But the benefits are well worth it. When those ducks are neatly in a row, you can easily find your files without quacking up.

Special to The Globe and Mail

The series on organizing your digital life continues next Thursday. Other Stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Your Business website.

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