Students Staff

Organising Information

Why organise information?

The most pressing reason is the Freedom of Information Act. We're allowed just 20 working days to respond to a request. We cant afford to waste time looking for things that we're pretty sure we've filed away, but can't remember where. The Information Commissioner has a short and amusing video, called Tick Tock, that explains how organising information helps us comply with the Freedom of Information Act.

We've all wasted time looking for pieces of paper we just know we put down somewhere. We've all gone direct to the folder where we expected to find a document that turns out not to be there. We've all printed out something more times than we needed because we lost the first copy we made. Why make life harder for yourself?

If you don't know where something is, how do you know it's safe? Information is an asset and we don't want to lose it. If it's personal information we could actually be fined for losing it.

In these days of computers we may feel that we don't need to do any organising. After all, our computer will find it for us, won't it? Actually the search facility on your computer is likely to be a bit hit and miss. If you've consistently misspelt a word or used an alternative spelling in a document you may not retrieve it. Unless you're looking for a very unusual word in a document you're likely to get too many "false positives" - those documents that do contain the word you're looking for, but aren't actually the document you want. Even if the document you want is one of those returned the search you may have to trawl through lots of documents to find it, even opening some of them up to read them if you're not using useful and meaningful names for your documents.

What is "information" anyway?

Information is electronic and paper document, Word documents and spreadsheets, leaflets and websites, even emails. It’s items you’ve produced and items you’ve been sent. It comes from inside and outside the University. Some of it is important, some of it is useful, and much of it may be junk. Whether it's a piece of paper, and email, or a file on your PC the tips below all apply.

Before you start

Before you start organising the information you keep you need to ask yourself whether you really need to keep everything you have. The less you keep the easier it is to organise.

Paper or electronic?

This is up to you. It's harder to keep track when a file is partly paper and partly electronic. If you can scan the paper, that's great, but it might be easier to print the electronic documents and keep a paper file. Both sorts of files cost money to store. Electronic storage overload tends to be less obvious: no one ever stubbed their toe or hit their head on a electronic file. The key is always to keep one or the other: avoid the belt and braces of keeping files electronically and on paper.

Naming things

The key to organising information is making sure that the documents you have and the files or folders you put them in are labelled. If it's a physical folder then it needs to be labelled legibly. You can use the folder name to remind you how long to keep things for. This will stop you just filling up a folder or starting a new one and turning a small collection of something into a permanent file. This works for physical and electronic folders. Just put a note like "permanent file", "keep for three months" or "this academic year only" on the label of the physical folder or make it part of the name of an electronic folder.

Avoid abbreviations, and if you must use them then make sure you are consistent. It doesn't matter if you call something ARMC, A&RMC, Audit and Risk Mgt Cttee or Audit & Risk Management Committee - the point is to pick one and stick to it. It's helpful if you use an abbreviation that can't be confused with anything else, and that makes sense to your colleagues, too. The same goes for dates: make sure you are consistent in the way you use them. If you're using shared folders then agree on a format with others who save items to those folders.

Keep it short. Long and rambling document or folder names are not helpful. On the other hand, avoid being so short that the name is cryptic. If a document is just called "minutes" you'll have to open it to check what and when the minutes are from.

Good file names are:

  • Objective (try "Records Management Office Team Chart 2011" instead of "current team chart")
  • Meaningful ("facbdmntsju10" might mean something to you - but will it make sense to anyone else?)
  • Concise (keep it snappy!)
  • Standardised (dates, names, abbreviations - pick a way to say it and stick to that way)
  • Function based (Names change - Human Resources used to be Personnel - use document and folder names that tell you what something does, rather than its current name)

Make it personal

There is no one answer when it comes to filing and arranging information. The best way to organise will depend on the way you want to find information. So if you work on an annual basis and what happens in a given year is more important than what happens to an individual then you might want to arrange information by year. If you need information on individual students then probably you need to collect information together that will cover several years.

Think about cookery books: some are arranged by dish type (starters, mains, desserts), some by ingredients (fish, pasta and rice) and some by occasions (picnics, dinner parties, weekend lunches). All can be useful, but if you’re wondering what to do with a glut of courgettes from the allotment then the book arranged by ingredient is likely to be more useful than one arranged by occasion.

Keep up with the times

Change is the only constant, as they say. Our jobs, our roles, the University changes about us. Even if you’ve been in the same job for five years your job will have changed: some things you will no longer do, other that used to be small grow to have more importance. It’s worth revising your filing system from time to time to make sure it’s still working for you. If your filing system is set in stone then you will outgrow it, and it will no longer be fit for purpose.

Take time to save time

Weeding out paper and files you hold, filing, labelling and organising are all really important things to do. We tend to avoid them because they are dull, they don’t feel like real work, and because we feel we don’t have time. Information is one of the University's assets. We need it to carry on as an institution. We need to be able to find it easily, store it safely, and destroy it securely when appropriate. Time spent filing is time well spent for the University and for us as individuals. Filing is the sort of gentle task that that frees your mind to think about great solutions to problems. Organising information is time well spent.

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