Are you a filer or a searcher? Did your organisations teach you to file?

Change Management process ITIL

Change Management process ITIL (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know the title of this blog sounds like an obvious question and it may be a basic one. However, I wonder how many companies start from that basic level when developing their staff.  How many teach their staff to file? How many teach them how to search?

In the age of the personal computer, we almost take these skills or questions for granted. Everyone knows how to name documents, name files and store documents in proper files.  We seem to take it for granted that everyone is their own records manager.  Yet, learning to file, learning to use an organisation’s systems and rules, which was the mainstay of all organisations 50 or even 20 years ago, has been lost. Despite that, we seem to forget that finding information and records is the basis upon which most organisations will succeed or fail.  The issue of filing and searching is more than one related to organisational culture even though that may have an influence.  Instead, it gets back to how an organisation teaches its staff and how they learn.

Have we reached an inflection point where we no longer teach filing because everyone knows how to search?

I worked on a change management project that merged several units. The project succeeded but it showed a serious vulnerability within the organisation.  As a change management exercise, it has been fascinating to experience and see.  You learn more by doing these than a textbook can tell you.  What the change also revealed was that an organisation may learn in different ways and that will be reflected in how the staff are taught and learn.  We saw that different units had different ways of work and different ways of teaching their staff.  What we realize in theory (everyone has a different culture and that leads to different practices) we saw in practice (everyone does the same task differently).

What was most surprising, in relation to the question, was that the exercise revealed a generational issue about ICT and records management. Staff who had experience with consistent and agreed filing systems maintained them.  Staff who had less (or no experience with filing systems) but used PCs more often, were less likely to use a consistent and agreed filing system.  What became clear is some units had a consistent and agreed filing system and others did not. Moreover, some allowed staff to organise their systems as they pleased while others set out the principles and guidelines that gave staff a consistent approach across sub-units.

In nearly every single unit, filing was taken for granted.  In the same way, we take it for granted that everyone knows how to use a computer in the same way. What we found was that some people stored everything on their desktop because no one had shown them how to file.  For others, everything was stored on the personal drive because they were never shown how to develop the shared drives.  What was consistent among those who were poor filers was that they became, by default, excellent searchers.

The basic question taken for granted in the age of filing has changed into the belief that filing less important than searching. Instead of just taking filing for granted, we now seem ready to take searching for granted.  Just as we may have assumed 50  years ago that staff would know how to file papers the same way, the computer age assumed that everyone will follow a consistent approach to document names, file names and drive names.  Instead, everyone did it differently with mixed results.

In our unit merger example, the inconsistency in filing and storage showed that the organisation was not joined up or ready to exploit its intrinsic or innate knowledge.  As files and documents were not named consistently or coherently, no one could work effectively across teams or units. A lot of time would be wasted trying to find the documents or information.  If someone left, then it became uncertain what was contained in a person’s computer or their account because there was no way to search or find the documents.

What is the solution? Become a better filer or a better searcher?

For some organisations, the answer may be to constrain the service users’ choices in creating a document. The staff are required to become better filers because the technology forces them. We then rely upon technology to avoid any managerial issues with making sure a member of staff knows how to file.  The software package limits how any document can be created and maintained within the system.  For others, the answer might be to create general guidelines to instruct staff and let each service or section develop their service or section specific systems.

The answer in recent years flips the question. Instead, the focus now seems to be to make staff better at searching.  Recent developments in algorithms allow full text and concept searching across full systems.  The systems allow staff to find material no matter how it is filed or named.  In effect, the age of the filer is past.  Instead, people become better at searching.  In a sense, the dream of the semantic web is being realized inside organisations that use the smart algorithms to find documents and information.

What does the future hold?

If we have moved from being filers to become searchers, what is the next step?  Is it that we no longer require the basic skills because we assume that technology will help us overcome the skills shortages?  If this continues, is there a point at which we no longer need a filing system of file names, documents and drives, which is the fundamental filing system within computers?

What will this do for records management?  If we no longer need classification schemes or file plans, what is the point of the records management function?  Even then, we may have feet of clay.  By that, I mean, we still face the issue that staff are not being taught to file, or search, and by relying on technology to solve the skill shortage, we simply perpetuate the underlying issue.

What we may see is that organisations that can teach their staff and have staff that are willing to learn will have a comparative advantage.  In effect, the knowledge workers will be successful because they understanding the intrinsic skills sets, which help them succeed.

I would be interested to know how your organisation teaches its staff to file. What does this tell you about their approach to learning? Are you a filer or a searcher?

Here are some references that proved interesting as they addressed the file naming issues.

I would be interested to know what you do on this basic question. Is it something that is no longer considered?

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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8 Responses to Are you a filer or a searcher? Did your organisations teach you to file?

  1. I don’t think its something that isn’t considered any more Lawrence, merely that the way we talk about it has changed. From filers to searchers, we are being asked about our information architecture, our content inventories, our user habits and interfaces.

    The technology is advancing and with the progression in automatic classification, the semantic web and content analytics, the task of “choosing” where to file is largely being taken away from the user – making their lives much easier. So are we moving towards a paradigm where users search more than file?

    If we exist only in an electronic environment I would say thats more likely, especially if the organisation is involved in more collaborative toolsets and more dynamic forms of content which dont lend themselves to our traditional filing structures and processes.

    But from a professional perspective, the records manager role is still needed; but it MUST evolve – we must move forward or render ourselves irrelevant.


    • Paula,
      Thanks for your comments. I agree that Records Manager will remain. However, it will change as the audience changes. I am not sure the user will ever lose the need to file. Their decision making will be augmented by the technology that allows meta data to be identified and proposed. There will be times that users create records (or documents) that they do not want to file.

      What I am not certain of, though, is how users will react to these changes. The PC era is dominated by a view of files, folders, and drives. In this way, the structure reflected paper filing. I am not sure this will be sustained in the semantic web system. Perhaps better filing will help better retrieval, but that does not always seem to be a limiting factor.

      We are in interesting and exciting times for records management.

      Thanks again for the positive and thoughtful comment.


  2. Russell Clarke says:

    Paula asked “So are we moving towards a paradigm where users search more than file?” I think that the language is more accurately about browse vs search. Stereotyping wildly, the browsers (aka the filers) expect and understand the taxonomic concept and the searchers have little concept of context. Of course there are also generational issues at work here but in general I agree with Lawrence’s central observations although I don’t think it removes the requirement for RM, it just shifts the engagement points. Regardless I am sure that ‘traditional filing processes and structures’ will increasingly disappear from view of the user.


    • Russell,
      Thanks for the positive and thoughtful comment. The organisational context is important as it will shape expectations and systems that will shape the user. If your organisation relies on a filing system and you are expected to use it, then it will shape the follow on approach to other records.

      What is interesting is that EDRMs assumes, for the most part, a decently developed RM filing and classification system. What happens when an organisation has low quality paper filing and low quality electronic filing because neither has been embedded in an organisation.

      What intrigued me about your response was the idea of engagement points and filing and structure disappearing from view. I would be itnerested in how you see that developing.




      • Russell Clarke says:

        “What happens when an organisation has low quality paper filing and low quality electronic filing because neither has been embedded in an organisation.”

        Exactly, and I believe that this scenario of a low grade organisation information culture is increasingly common despite our inevitable self denials. The common eDRMS paradigm of the hierarchical classification structure just does not gel for these organisations and I do not see signs of organisational investment in addressing the skill gaps that would build those skills back up. Nor do I necessarily think it’s something we should even try to do (because it’s probably (a) futile and (b) clinging on to a model that is increasingly at odds with organisational need. In many ways we have been slaves to the physical record model, many edrms implementations are not much more than crude electronic representations of a physical model (imho) that fail to take real advantage of the non-physical nature of the content.

        Metadata, workflow etc that lets users engage in a business process but which lets embedded business rules drive the consistent ‘classification’ activities in the background are what I think we need to be striving towards. It’s a big change and it won’t happen quickly (frankly the technology is still a bit iffy to deliver it too) but it’s were I have hope for good RM in the next 10 years.


  3. rammellel says:

    My experience suggests that the issue may be a generational “thing”. Folk of my generation are more used to browsing through some kind of classification system, whether that is through Windows Explorer or a file structure within an EDMS, clicking each folder in a hierarchy until they come to what they want. In contrast, colleagues of the younger generation are more used to Google-type searching and are not concerned when they do not see a visible file structure. I really struggle with some clients to establish EDMSs without a visible file structure because I get told the end-users won’t like it!
    Having said that, I think the paradigm is shifting away from strong file hierarchies but that does not remove the need for classification. Classification is necessary not just for search/browsing but for reporting and for retention management. Education of end-users now involves ensuring a good understanding of the concept of metadata and how powerful it can be.


    • Thanks for the comment, I was using generational in many senses. The file structure divide is important. What interests me about the development is how we move to the next stage. Is there a post search phase for how records are stored because of their relationship rather than to their meta data? I agree that classification may be necessary, but how much of hat will be automated? Once it is automated, how much will be necessary if the issue is not classification or metadata but the relational aspects of the record. In other words, the record only exists within its relation to other data.
      I think the work being done with semantic searching, linked data, and augumented reality is showing the way data (and by extension records) are being used and modified will affect records management and take us beyond the file vs searcher phase.


  4. Andy Carnahan says:

    Lawrence, you pose an interesting question and I think there is a missing link that your ITIL change management diagram helps give me an answer.

    The filing vs searching question is a matter for retrieval. We can locate content via either method, but often we are also seeking context. Not only what happenned but around what circumstances did it happen. This is where the lovely physical file metaphor works so well. Because the order of the file contains an implicit workflow. This happenned after that but before this. So we may find the needle in the haystack, and provided we can find the greater context then the find is made richer.

    Most ECMs are also workflow tools so they embed the action on the document. A massive pile of electronic documents, or even pieces of data have no way of reconstituting their workflow – the part that tells the story of how they came to be where they are.

    Paula may have some further ideas.


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