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?
- EMC’s Cloud Tiering Appliance Gets A Big Update (chucksblog.emc.com)
- Alfresco unveils Records Management 2.0 (ecmplus.wordpress.com)
- Records management is dead. Long live records management (blogs.computerworld.com)