Monday, 17 October 2011

Best Practices for Document Heirarchy

The key function of a document management system is the storage and retrieval of information in a structured but efficient form.  If information cannot be found it has no value.  When organizations first started to store documents electronically in simple file shares users were allowed to create an unlimited number of folder levels and often users did just that; creating a different folder level for every sub classification of a file.  This process lead to folders containing documents that went as deep as 10 or more levels.  This multi level folder structure eventually becomes unmanageable and makes it nearly impossible to find or organize documents.  If users of electronic systems would simply mimic the traditional physical file structure of Cabinets / Drawers / Folders Groups / Folders / Document/, this problem is avoided.  This 4 or 5 level structure is document management "best practices" and is the optimum that users can easily work with and sustain usability.

Electronic data can be stored very efficiently and therefore we can have different practices relative to organizing and retrieving information.  Today's users of document and knowledge management systems who have become accustomed to finding whatever they want on Google expect to find whatever they want, when they want it, in internal systems.  To meet this expectation the trend today is toward flatter filing systems and more extensive tagging of documents with metadata (data about data).  The use of metadata when combined with powerful full text search gives users the power and speed they are seeking. Resulting documents can be organized on the fly into “virtual folders”.  A modern document management system provides unlimited metadata definition and capture and has a powerful search capability allowing users to find information of importance with little effort.

Expert Validation of Limited File Structure

To validate the 4 to 5 level approach to a filing hierarchy several industry experts (consultants and practitioners) were asked to comment on the “best practices” approach to filing hierarchy. 

The question given to them was, “Please comment; based on your experience and knowledge of the document management industry, if a maximum of 5 levels for a hierarchy is in accordance with your beliefs about ’best practices’ "?

Answer- Mick Pavnica, President Professional Business Automation Technology

"I recommend the fewer the better and often configure for only 4 levels. My emphasis is on using metadata to find things. In (unnamed competitive product) there are unlimited levels but I have only had one customer who went deeper than 5 and it turned out to be a disaster."

Answer - Steve Wade, ISP, CBCP, PMP Logistics & Special Projects Manager Enforcement Division

"Our experience is that for our Records Management System to be used effectively by staff it has to be as simple as possible, requiring a minimum of information for classification. In our system we have a five level hierarchy; Primary / Secondary / Tertiary /Folder/ Document.  This structure maps directly to the records management policies of Government (ARCS/ORCS). This is then supplemented by metadata to enhance the searchability of a specific document. In our case the only mandatory metadata fields are document name, classification and document type. To further enhance usability we create group favorites for the first four levels of the hierarchy so that staff who work in specific areas need only pick a classification, name the document and fill in the metadata.

IMHO, an organization that is looking for a deeper hierarchy (especially an unlimited one) is not going to benefit from the power of a document management system.  All you will be doing is transferring the folder structure from Windows Explorer (and associated management headaches) to the document management system."

Answer- Eric Posa, President DocuSyst
 "This is often a major issue of discussion when dealing with a Document Structure setup: here are my thoughts.  I am a very large advocator of "Less is More". I have done many installs where customers have wanted to have subfolders underneath folders and even another level of sub-folders. I believe that this defeats the purpose of a document management system. A perfect example is a company that uses Microsoft Windows Explorer to save their files. If you give a user the ability, they will create their own structure, naming convention, and so on. My biggest selling point to upper level employees is you take that ability out of the users hands and set up a simple structure that forces the user to store documents a certain way. Now, when an employee leaves, their knowledge of how documents are stored and named does not leave with them and it is the same for all users.
I would be extremely hesitant to create the ability to have subfolders upon subfolders as it defeats the simplicity of a product.  The metadata is all you really need to find what you are looking for."

Answer: Kevin McArthur, VP Sales FileHold Systems

"Based on all of the projects I have worked on where this issue cropped up, I can tell you that in most cases deeper levels were not necessary. In my mind, the primary argument for deep levels of folders and subfolders is based on limitations found in paper based filing systems. Since there was no good way to isolate specific document types, the only way to ensure that distinct documents could be found quickly was to separate them out into sub folders.  One of the primary selling points of any document management systems is that the power of the search engines does the work for you. If you have identified a document type as requiring distinction or isolation, you can simply flag it with the appropriate metadata or index fields to quickly find what you are looking for.

I had a CPA firm that absolutely required us to help them in supporting a deep hierarchical system. We explained to them that for every level deeper that we go, we run the risk of losing the power of the search engines and naming conventions. They refused, telling us that their system was required by "the board" to be done on this way. A year or so later during a follow up visit, the project manager confided in me that now they wished they had listened to us in the beginning. In my mind, it was not their fault. We did not do a good job of educating them as to the new technology. We have the benefit of understanding this technology and if it is explained correctly, the argument for deep levels starts to fade.”

Document management software  can be complex to implement and it is essential to make it as easy to use and as understandable as possible.  Keeping the filing hierarchy simple is one of the key recommendations that will make it easy to find documents and easy to file them.  To learn more about best practices in implementing a document management solution contact .


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