Computers: Turbo-Charged Filing Cabinets

      With a little effort, computers can make information storage and access a quick and painless process. 1998.

By Poney Carpenter

As Iíve said before, computers wonít fix poor organization.

A computer can be much more efficient for storing information than any filing cabinet. But this efficiency can't be achieved without effort on your part. You need to develop a system of organization that will make it possible to keep track of and find information when you need it. This column will provide some advice on how to do just that.

What Weíre Talking About
The most popular operating systems (OS) have a hierarchical storage structure, with applications, files, and folders. Here's a quick review:

  • Application: A software program that lets you perform a task. The resulting data is stored in a file.

  • File: This is where the data is stored. (Data is created when you work with an application. For example, the text of a letter, the information in a spreadsheet, etc.)

  • Folder: These are sometimes called directories. Folders donít hold any data of their own--they are simply places to put applications, files, and other folders.

The Wrong Way
A lot of computer users store all their files in the same folders as the applications they used to create them. This doesnít make a lot of sense: when you go to the filing cabinet, do you look for information based on what paper itís printed on? Files should be stored according to the type of information they contain.

Another popular and troublesome method of organization is to put all your files in one folder. (This can be likened to randomly tossing all your files in one filing cabinet. No, you're not sure where the missing file is, but it's got to be in that filing cabinet.)

A third approach is to use a file system based on cryptic terms derived from ancient texts or an acid trip. Iím never sure what people were thinking when they set things up this way. I guess the idea is to test your memory and confuse those Russian spy co-workers who are peeking at your computer.

The last and most astounding method is to have a number of different folders--with names that do indeed make sense-- but to simply store files randomly, scattering them about the hard drive....so close, and yet so far.

Recognize yourself in any of these descriptions? If so, it's time to straighten things out.

The Right Way
You need to implement an effective organization system. Itís not the law, but it should be.

There are a number of different systems which might be effective, but they all have one thing in common: organizing files by similar characteristics. For example, you could have separate folders for letters to clients, vendors, and business contacts, all inside another folder for general correspondence. A folder for financial information might contain separate folders for cost sheets and financial projections. A folder for estimates or shop drawings might contain separate folders for each job. Or maybe a system in which each job has itís own folder, each containing separate sub-folders for estimates, shop drawings, engineering, correspondence, and invoices.

Itís also a good idea to name files as sensibly as possible. If your operating system only allows about 8 characters for file names, this will be a challenge. If your OS allows 32 characters for names, you have more flexibility. The file name should say as much about the contents as possible. If itís a letter, who was it written to? If itís a database, what data does it contain? If itís a shop drawing, what job is it for? And for each file that goes through revisions, what version of the file is it? (To quickly identify older or newer versions, number files.)

Think about this: if you are about to store a file, is it obvious where it belongs in your structure? If not, you need to refine your structure. If you canít tell easily where to put a file, then you wonít easily be able to find it again.

Another serious organization problem is the pack-rat syndrome. Within limits, keeping copies of information is always a good idea, and computers make this easy. Too easy. If you keep too many copies of files around, things get cluttered. If you keep multiple "in progress" versions of files, and donít label them carefully, you can end up grabbing the wrong information.

There is a fairly simple test to see if the organization system youíve created is effective: ask someone else to find something. If that brain-dead coworker of yours can figure out how to find something on your computer, you probably can too, even on a bad day.

About the Author: Poney Carpenter is a computer consultant and software developer with woodworking experience. In the woodworking industry, he has worked as an installer, estimator, project manager, and engineer. In the computer industry, he has worked developing vertical-market software, providing technical support and training, and doing general consulting for businesses. Poney operates Promethean Technologies, a computing consulting firm with a Website at: www.promtech.com



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