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:
- Reduce repetition of common words in file and folder names to a minimum
- Use acronyms only if they are commonly understood among users
- Keep filenames to below 20 characters if you can
- Start the filename with whatever is the key discriminating information for that document type when people want to go find it (eg date, correspondent)
- Construct filenames so that your IT system will display them in a helpful order
- Make sure that all newcomers to your workgroup are introduced to the filenaming conventions
- When you begin any new folder structure or project, agree your filenaming conventions among all content producers in advance
- Enforce consistency by periodic correction of inconsistent naming practices
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):
- Left Behind
- Called Joe But He Wont Call Me Back_Toss It?
- I No Longer Care
- Jill’s Train wreck
- Hopefully Trash
- This Person is Deceased_Now What?
- Tom’s Files: he was incarcerated and we don’t know what to do
- Dont invest time until someone asks about it
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?
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