Filenaming Conventions and Knowledge Sharing

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the high flown theory and rhetoric of knowledge sharing, we forget the mundane, almost mechanical ways in which we can enhance it.

At a meeting last week, I was asked if I knew of anyone who had successfully implemented filenaming conventions across their organisation. This agency was interested because they wanted to improve the consistency with which documents are named and stored for common use, thereby improving visibility, access and sharing.

Getting started with a filenaming convention

To support such goals, filenames need to be transparent, meaningful, user-friendly and consistent. This ensures that anyone who reviews a filename should immediately be able to form an accurate expectation about the content of the document.

Transparent means that the words in the filename accurately summarise the content of the document using language in common use.
Meaningful means that the words used in the filename usefully distinguish the content of this document from other documents.
User-friendly means that the filename is easy to read and understand in relation to other filenames in a list, when it is presented in an on-screen window.
Consistent means that similar principles of filenaming are used by all document creators in a department, so that users do not have to interpret different conventions for the same collection of documents.

These principles, by the way, also apply to folder-naming conventions in a traditional folder structure – although with folders, because you are describing collections of content, you are more likely to need a standard taxonomy to provide you with standardised subject-related terms.

Some time back, I wrote a list of high level guidelines for how to approach establishing a common filenaming convention:

Filename construction

There is some much more detailed guidance on how to construct transparent, meaningful, user friendly and consistent filenames from a British records management perspective, in guidelines issued by the Universities of Newcastle and Edinburgh respectively (thanks Maish). What is nice about these guidelines is that they explain the rationale for the convention, and give worked examples for both good and bad practice. These guidelines are very easy to adapt, but do localise them to your own context.

Getting the convention bedded down in your organisation

Well at that meeting I recommended Doreen Tan, who has a lot of experience of introducing document management discipline into fairly anarchic or greenfield information environments. She responded to my clients’ enquiry with a very nice, very practical set of suggestions for how to ensure that the convention gets bedded down and actually works. Here is her advice, reproduced with her kind permission:

1. Do not expect 100% takeup rate as it would never happen, but try ways and means to maximise the number.
2. Get buy-in from your senior management at the start; in fact ask them what they would like included in the filenaming convention before implementation.
3. Be able to explain the rationale of including the various components. For example, the version numbers would help staff identify the latest documents if there are 1000 versions being churned out by different people at different times.
4. Leverage on your KM champions or coordinators to help you spread the message and monitor the filenaming at the ground level.
5. Do a 6-month audit to check compliance; highlight examples of non-compliance and keep senior management in the loop. You need to be serious about ensuring compliance.
6. Include the filenaming convention in the staff orientation so that new staff are brainwashed the moment they step into the organisation; have posters stuck on notice board, in the lifts, etc to remind them.
7. Leverage on key managers to help you with the compliance. For example, they will not accept documents that do not conform to the convention.
8. Be ready to set an example at the beginnning of implementation. This means taking the trouble to change the filenaming convention by yourself for a period of time, so that there are live examples that others would hopefully follow.
9. And of course, make sure you follow what you preach so that you will be seen as the ‘authority’ on the topic.

If you provide clear guidelines, and follow Doreen’s advice, you will stand a reasonable chance of actually helping to make information more easily navigated and shared. We shouldn’t under-estimate how a simple, clearly explained discipline like this can influence broader attitudes towards knowledge sharing.

Have we missed anything?

Of course, the human spirit has an infinite capacity to transcend our aspirations and our discipline. Here, from “Taxonomist” is a hilarious list of unusual folder names (appropriately organised into a taxonomy) that she has come across in the course of her taxonomy-building work with organisations. My personal favourites are below (but check out the whole post for them all):

These folder names do express meaning of a sort – we “get” immediately the emotional stance towards the content. They fail every other test, of course, because there’s really no way of forming a reasonable expectation as to the horrors (or treasures) they may contain. But the patent existence of a need to attach emotional significance to our collections of content is one that should give us pause. How do we accommodate that instinct while still serving those broader goals of access and consistency?


3 Comments so far

Matt Moore

Patrick. Nice post. I may reuse the advice posted by here yourself & Doreen - with full attribution of course.

I agree that this is a common set of problems and yet there is little written on it - as I found out at the end of last year on a client project.

One issue with this client is that they wanted global best practice on filenames.

Some points that I made were:
- File names need to be meaningful to the staff that might potentially use them. Which in many cases means not only those who created the file but other current employees and also future employees.
- Consistency is really, really important. It’s better to have a useful set of conventions used by a majority than a perfect set used by a minority.
- On the other hand, you need to focus your efforts (esp. compliance efforts) on the kinds of files that are shared a lot. There’s a pareto relationship involved.

The final point about emotions is an interesting one. That’s where something like tagging comes perhaps?

Posted on April 17, 2010 at 09:35 AM | Comment permalink


Tagging is the first thing that springs to mind, of course, but when you compare tags with the folder names above, their value for emotional expressiveness seems very thin. I think there’s scope for thinking about the communicative value of captioning rather than tagging, but haven’t really thought out how..

Posted on April 17, 2010 at 09:44 AM | Comment permalink

Patrick -

Summarizing… there are 3 legs to this stool:
- the allowable language to be used (e.g. controlled vocabulary)
- the rules (dates first?  under what circumstances?)
- AUTOMATED ENFORCEMENT (of the first two)

Absent the automated enforcement, it’s impossible to keep up with the volume in an organization of any size. 

By now people have been doing unsupervised, unorganized, self-taught folder/file naming for their entire lives (my son had a computer before age 6) & changing those bad habits will not happen due to 30 minutes of company on boarding.

On this computer, I personally (excluding system folders/files) have approx 130,000 folders/files.  Do the math.

When you Google “naming conventions” or “naming standards” there are upwards of 1,000,000 hits, largely revolving around programming.  I would argue that how programmers name things in a software system is exactly the same as what happens with workers who’re just using MSOffice & such.

Duly note that while the advice is heavy on the “this is a really good idea & be consistent...” there is essentially NO advice about how to actually enforce whatever convention has been chosen.

Obviously it’s a huge challenge & only getting worse by the keystroke.

- David

Posted on April 17, 2010 at 11:42 AM | Comment permalink

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