Business person sharing a file with a colleague

BUSINESS FILE SHARING BEST PRACTICES

Whether you have an office with individual workstations, or a fully remote workforce, well-executed file and data management is vital to your success. In order for your team to work efficiently and effectively, they need easy access to the information required to do their jobs. Let’s dig in…

the Problems associated with Poor File management

Poor file management breeds a number of ugly scenarios including:

  • Difficulty finding information when you need it.
  • A lack of transparency for teams and management.
  • Different versions of files floating around in emails, individual workstations, etc., etc.
  • Disgruntled, stressed out employees.
  • Data loss – No bueno!
  • Inconsistency in processes and information handoffs.
  • Slow employee and/or customer onboarding times.
  • Confusion throughout your company. 
  • Shared Folders become a “dumping ground”.
  • The list goes on, and on…

The Three Components of Proper File Management

  1. Establish a file naming convention everyone understands. Then enforce it.
  2. Create a clear and consistent folder structure.
  3. Grant appropriate sharing and permission settings throughout your organization. 

"Data backup is more affordable than ever. Poorly-executed information management is expensive"

1. Establish File Naming Conventions

The first part of business file sharing is establishing a file name convention. In layman’s terms – this means establishing a protocol of how every file name will be structured within your organization. 

As with all change initiatives – you must clearly identify why the change is happening and the benefits to the team which will result from the change. For more information on this, you can read our blog on cultural change. Solid Leadership Required

Why your business should establish a file naming convention?

A file naming convention benefits everyone in your organization in the following ways:

  1. Create consistency in your file names.
  2. Everyone will be able to easily find information they need.
  3. Promote teamwork by establishing standards which benefit everyone. 
  4. Make it easier to manage your files from an administrator’s perspective. 
  5. Improve readability of your company files.

Best practices in establishing a file naming convention

Here are some core principles to keep in mind when establishing your naming convention(s):

  1. Whatever naming convention(s) you use – CONSISTENCY IS KEY!
  2. Use metadata to find files fast. 
  3. Keep it simple – overdoing your naming convention leads to your team not following the convention at all. 
  4. Never use spaces – use underscores instead. Some programs replace spaces or eliminate them. 
  5. Never use any special characters – use only letters, numbers and underscores. Certain programs and operating systems will have issues with files containing special characters. Plus – this helps keep your file names clean and consistent. 
  6. UpperCamelCase – Use this name convention to StringWordsTogether in a metadata section of a file name. 
  7. Abbreviations & Acronyms – These can be used only if everyone on your team understands them.
  8. Try to keep your file names under 50 characters.
  9. Save final versions as .pdfs to prevent changes. 
  10. Use ISO 8601 format YYYYMMDD to keep things chronological. 
  11. Make sure a copy of your naming convention(s) is easily accessible to everyone in your organization.

Here are the 4 main pieces of metadata which are widely accepted as a good starting point…

  1. Identifier – Examples: Customer or vendor name, account number, product number, etc. etc.
  2. Subject – This should let everyone know what the document is and the purpose before opening it. Use keywords. 
  3. Date – Use ISO 8601 format YYYYMMDD to keep things chronological. The date may seem irrelevant since most programs like Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace have a number of date fields you can use. But depending on the individually selected folder views everyone on your team uses, this information may not be available instantly. Make it easy by adding the date! It also helps ensure versioning numbers are correct!
  4. Version Number – keep it simple by adding v1, v2, v3, etc. or final – save your final docs as pdfs to prevent changes. 

The end result would look like this: 

Identifier_SubjectWithKeywords_Date_VersionNumber

A draft marketing department document:

Marketing_HowToCreateFacebookAd_20210518_V1.word (Marketing department, purpose, date, version number)

A final marketing department document:

Marketing_HowToCreateFacebookAd_20210529_Final.pdf

It’s important to note – you can use different conventions for different file sets. Here are a couple of examples where using a different naming convention makes sense: 

  1. Integrated files – If you have a set of files integrated with other platforms that require a certain convention.
  2. Company receipts – Your accounting manager may choose to use invoice numbers, chart of account numbers, price, or any combination. This could warrant a different convention. 

Make sure to document the plan and be consistent. At the end of the day, there need to be standards which are clearly communicated, as well as someone ultimately responsible for leading the change and enforcing the naming conventions

You might be worried that you have 5000 files and changing them sounds like a nightmare. But the reality is – in most businesses, less than 10% of your documents are actually even being used throughout the organization. Even worse – the files being used are oftentimes outdated or have multiple versions floating around. Scary, but true.

Here’s a tip that might help… I recommend asking your team to rename files with your new naming convention any time they open or create a document moving forward. With this approach, within a short amount of time you’ll be able to easily identify the files which should be archived. 

2. Planning and Organizing Your Business folder Hierarchy

Now that you have a naming convention in place, it’s time to start organizing your files to make it easier for everyone to find the information they need. There are numerous ways in which companies might format their folder hierarchy. Here are some of the commonly kicked around methods which I do not promote:

Client – Organize all of your file by client, then create a folder hierarchy inside of those with all the details of the project.

Date – Categorize everything by date using YEAR or MONTH folders.

Products or Services – Organize by products or services your company sells.

Users – Create separate folders for everyone in the organization to save their own files and information.

What's wrong with these methods of company folder structure?

The reason I don’t like these as “Top-Level” folders is due to my experience creating Business Operating Systems and company Wiki’s. Without a doubt – the best way to set these up is by DEPARTMENT (or SPACE). Space is a term originally popularized by Confluence. The only difference between departments and spaces is some companies have an area of a company warranting it’s own section, but it is not necessarily a “Department” per se. I find that using this same methodology for organizing your files is the most efficient, creates a clean top-level hierarchy, and also allows for simplified permission settings. Start by identifying your “departments”, and if you need to add a “space” simply add a top-level folder for it. 

Additionally, if you organize by department (or space), you can incorporate subfolders for all of the above-mentioned scenarios according to each department’s needs. Here are some examples:

  • Clients” could nest under a “Sales” department or a “Customer Service” department. Regardless of your industry, there are other departments vital to your success, not just clients.
  • Date” could nest in subfolders of “Finance” department or other departments as needed. Make sure to standardize the format for date-specific folders so they show up in chronological order using ISO8601 YYYMMDD.
  • Products Or Services” could nest under a “Product Development” department, or a “Sales” department. Again, if your company has hundreds of products – these should not be top-level folders. 
 
The rogue option:
  • Usersis just all around bad. This leads to “siloed” knowledge (only one person knows how to do something). Now, in some instances user folders might make sense, but I recommend to nest them under a department to which everyone in that department (and administrators) have access. If one of your employees is working on something it should be available to everyone who might need it. More importantly – if it is not something anyone else needs, it likely means they are wasting company time (and money) on something irrelevant. That’s the brutal truth of the matter. 

Try to establish some basic folders which every department in your company will use (more on this below). Use these as templates for all of the departments. This creates consistency throughout your folder tree and makes finding documents in different departments easier. Sure, most departments will need some of their own folders. But identifying folder names that would apply to all departments in your organization goes a long way! 

Last, I recommend locking down folder creation to admins only. This helps ensure your folder structure doesn’t spiral out of control. Yes, it might be a little annoying at first when you are fielding requests for new folders. But it will be well worth your time investment on the front end to ensure your folder structure stays clean and concise. 

Here's An Elementary Example Of What A Company Folder Structure Might Look Like

Again, there are a lot of different ways to structure your folder hierarchy. This is intended to be a basic visual example, not the only way to do it. Decide what makes sense for your organization, and be consistent. 

Miro Board flow chart showing business file structure

In this example, the top-level folders are grouped by DEPARTMENT first. Drilling down on “Customer Service” are the main categories you identified with your team that make sense to have in all of your departments. Here, we’ve identified these as “Archives”, “How To Docs”, “KPI & OKR Data”, and “Projects”. Drilling down on “Archives”, the other sub-folder names are nested for archiving documents within those folders. Consistency in your folder structure simplifies finding and saving information for everyone.

Take some time identifying the folder names that make sense for your organization. Each department can fill in the gaps as needed. 

Best Practices of Business Folder Structure

  1. Set up your folder structure by DEPARTMENT and SPACE! Start with identifying your departments, fill in gaps with spaces. These are your top-level folders. 
  2. Lock down folder creation to admins! This helps prevent your company file management spiral out of control. If someone needs a new high-level folder, they can ask an admin.
  3. Create folder templates for departments and sub-folders to keep things consistent throughout your departments.
  4. Don’t float folders. Adding a “1” or a “Z” to beginning to rearrange folders just confuses matters.
  5. Don’t bury files too deep in subfolders. 3-5 levels of subfolders is a good target!

3. Establish Solid File Sharing Permissions

I’m not a file permissions guru, so I won’t get into too much detail here. Additionally, there are a lot of different platforms out there for file management and storage, and each one has slightly different options. But there are some best practices worth sharing, regardless of the platform your organization is using:

  1. Share with GROUPS of people or by DEPARTMENT (or SPACE). Refrain from sharing files with individual users.
  2. Use the different options available like “view only”, “contributor”, etc. to share as much information with your team as possible, without fear of files getting accidentally moved, edited or deleted. 
  3. Determine if you want files to be shared only within your organization or outside of your organization. Set permissions accordingly. 
  4. Regularly audit permission settings by logging in as another user on a regularly scheduled basis.
  5. Setup alert notifications for highly sensitive and critical information.
  6. Maintain consistency in your permission settings. Individual file access here and there usually indicates a poor folder structure, and makes auditing permissions a real challenge.
  7. Use hyperlinks or shortcuts when a file needs to be in more than one department to prevent duplicate versions.
  8. Create an accountable person for each department, but have one person who oversees all of the data and audits it on a scheduled basis! 
  9. Share links to files – not the attachments. This ensures IMPORTANT INFORMATION DOES NOT GET SILOED IN INBOXES! This also prevents people from sharing company documents. If you attach copies of files, they can be forwarded to anyone. If you share file links protected by permissions – they cannot do that!
  10. Document your permission settings protocol.
 
Most important – If you are not comfortable with managing your company data – don’t attempt to! 
 

Final Thoughts

  1. Digitize everything you can.
  2. Make the folder structure and file naming convention part of your employee onboarding guide. Make it readily available to everyone.
  3. Backup everything. Implement a secondary data backup system to your cloud. Most cloud-based systems only give up to 90 days to recover files. You may not realize there is a loss of data until it is too late. Also, if you have ransomware and no additional backup in place – YOU ARE SCREWED!

The benefits of an organized share folder and file structure

  • Streamlined business processes
  • Faster access to relevant data, resources and documents
  • Ideas and documentation can be reused
  • Reduced redundant efforts
  • Leverage expertise and experience
  • Faster onboarding times
  • Easier cross-departmental training
  • Standardized & repeatable processes / procedures
  • Reduced downtime when key employees are sick or exit
  • Support employee growth and development
  • More effective communication
  • Happier employees

We’ve covered a lot of ground here, but I hope this helps. Data and File Management is vital to scalability and sustainability of your business. It will take some work on the front end, but you and your team will be glad you did it in the end.

~Brian 

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