Information Management does not come naturally to people. A group of people, left to their own devices, will store information very very poorly.
The consequences of bad information management are dire but they aren’t overtly pressing to the day to day of joe blogs. It’s a lot like Climate Change, you cannot see the damage being done at the micro level, but at the macro level it adds up to catastrophic damage, and just like Climate Change most people do not understand why until its too late.
Poor information management costs companies a colossal amount of time. It takes longer to onboard new staff as they are forced to learn their roles through continuous trial and error. Multiple staff will inevitably invent the same wheel as the previous person never documented their findings or methodology, likewise mistakes are repeated, over and over again. Issues / problems / outages / emergencies take longer to resolve. Documentation breeds consistency, without it the same task is done to varying levels of quality. A lack of documentation limits an employee to their own thinking ability, if they are never exposed to how their colleagues think of problems they will never expand beyond themselves.
Just like anything, Information Management has many elements to it. Ranging from what should be stored, to where you store it, to how you manage it. However, there is one core principle that, if understood and practiced, by your entire workforce, would take you from 0% to about 60% in a single step, you could theoretically never look at any of the other principles ever again and be significantly better off than a company that doesn’t.
So what does this mean in practice?
It means that you don’t store any documentation on your personal machine. The information you create at work belongs to your employer, so the perfect test is; can the CEO access this document right now? The answer is no if it’s stored on your desktop or in your emails.
This of course means that you should be storing all documentation in a shared location, where all employees have access. Think intranet, SharePoint, google drive, drop box, or a local network drive. You can actually buy software that does this for you, they are called EDRMS’s (Electronic Document and Records Management System) or ECM’s (Electronic Content Management).
And this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to store everything in a single location. While one location reduces confusion and can be considered a source of truth system you may have multiple options available to you. I worked in a place where we stored all internal information on the intranet, all external information in our CMS, and all information our call centre needed in the call centre software. The golden rule here is store information in a place where your employees will think to look for it. So if you have to store information across multiple make sure the split is logically your staff, however, if you are maintaining the same piece of information into more than one system that’s a sign that you haven’t got it right.
So now that all your information is one (or two) systems, you’re set right? Well, not really. Discoverable doesn’t just mean its all in one place. Discoverable means it can be found through a couple of minutes of searching.
This means that it should be named appropriately, so that a user can locate it by using a search tool or by manually navigating through the software. But that doesn’t meant you have to put every pertinent detail into the name.
So while ‘Report - final’ is a shockingly common example of a document name, it doesn’t need to be ‘Closure_Report_Ocean_Restoration_Project_April2019_Final_version’ either. Sometimes where a document is stored can provide some context. For example if the document was store inside a folder called “Ocean Restoration Project” and then was named “Closure_Report_April2019” that would do the job. Be better at naming and everyone will benefit, but don’t go too hard out.
Most shared storage solutions will involve a folder structure of some kind, and trust me I could write a thousand things of what NOT to do in a folder structure, so lets just cover some basic best practice. Remember the goal is to be easily discoverable. So a folder per team or project is a good start, where things go awry is people making folders for ‘their’ work, so a folder called ‘Gary’ where Gary puts everything he does is a big no no. A good tip, in terms of what to name your folder structure, is to use terms familiar to your company, but make sure it will stand the test of time, i.e will it be relevant in two years?
Try not to go more than four levels deep on your folder structure, this aides with manual “click-through” discovery. Having 8 levels of folders all with four folders is a lot of looking. Use a naming convention to group together similar work, rather than create lots of folders.
Discoverable also means you don’t hide documents unnecessarily. Management fall into this bad habit of hiding everything they do under the guise of ‘security.’ This goes wrong every single time. Unless the information is to be protected for legal reasons, you should not hide it or manage it’s permissions. And I can hear you right now thinking “but this piece of work I’m doing is super important no one can see it” and my answer always is “why have you hired people if you don’t trust them? Besides people have better things to do than go snooping through a folder structure. All information, unless legally protected, should be accessible by all staff, even if it is ‘not their job’.
So to recap, the goal is to make your information, whether it be process documentation, code, minutes, reports, easily discoverable by anyone in your company. To do this, put it all in, preferably, one location. If more than one, may sure the split is logical. Structure your information in a simple structure, and don’t go too deep. Name your information appropriately so that it’s obvious as to what it may contain at a cursory glance and never ever hide away information unless legally required to.