The era of computer folders is dead so stop using them

For decades, employees have been provided with folders to manage business files. A hierarchical storage model that panders to that bit of control freak in everyone – or not.

They are actually a little unnatural. Teaching people how they work was not an easy task, but the older generation have grown up with nothing else and they are now so deeply engrained in workplace culture that people can’t let go – so much so in fact that new offerings in the cloud, such as DropBox and One Drive, offer the same model.

It’s odd that people live by folders at work and then go home and use the folder-free, fantastically searchable internet at home. People rarely stop to think about the downsides of folder-based file management – and there are several.

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Firstly, the approach is usually inconsistent or chaotic with variation in structures across employees. The number of folders proliferate, names vary, and spelling and format variations creep in.

What is happening is that useful data about a file or document is being buried in the folder path. Does this folder path seem familiar: \clientsAnother Co2015ConsultingJohnPanalysis.doc?

We see a company name (client), a year, a service type and an employee mentioned, but now we cannot properly sort or filter by these because they are simply buried in a string of letters and may be misspelled or misarranged.

A human can make educated guesses but shouldn’t let a computer make them on their behalf. This data is all but lost in this new world of big data.

Secondly, it takes effort to manage and extend the folders. With each new year, client and supplier, new folders need to be created by hand. The data for these probably exists in a CRM, finance, HR or operations system, but they might be unused or, worse, ignored.

This lack of integration between systems and folders severs any form of structure and renders the folders chaotic. Just ask yourself about the lumbering, enormous file shares you have in your business that you cannot bear to navigate yourself – can you link to them from your systems? Probably not.

Finally, the reality of so many file shares is that they are simply not searchable in a useable manner. The result of this is that large amounts of documentation is all but lost to the business due to the effort it takes to access it.

This problem is increasing at an exponential rate and, with the amount of data businesses are holding, it just cannot continue.

Spreading the misery

Many people enjoy the simplicity of sharing via cloud services like DropBox. They are seduced as it appears to work, but what is really going on is the chaos of folders is being replicated and shared on a new, larger scale.

Those who use DropBox a lot start to see the cracks in the system – overwritten files (poor versioning) and unclear ownership of data. It only takes a few disappointments and the service starts to lose its shine.

The result from a business overview perspective is worse: collaboration is happening in the business but now there is no clear view or strong control over the majority of key business data.

Unlike folders, key data about a file or document – known as metadata – is defined explicitly for what it is. This enables the powerful search and meaningful navigation people enjoy on the internet. Dates can be dates that users search for before and after, numbers have order and range, staff names must be in a valid list.

What is also different is users can choose to constrain what values are included in this data and if it is required or not. Integration of documents with systems becomes achievable and rather easy to manage.

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The result is that users have a far better organised set of documents that can be retrieved instantly in the way you really want to. People still want to be able to control data and compartmentalise it, but they don’t need to create a thousand folders to achieve this – just a handful of partitions for secure access would do.

All users are happy with search at home. Many are now using search at work and the number is increasing. Mobile devices have taught users that the hierarchy of folders is not the only way to manage data.

IT managers are looking for ways to shut down these dinosaur file shares that add little value. Compliance managers are demanding true visibility and enquiry into documents held in the business. Ops directors are demanding better integration between systems and documents.

All these factors pointedly state that the era of the folder system is all but dead. People just have to wean off it.


Sourced from Stuart Evans, Invu

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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