Business-Wide File and Data Management

The end of the calendar year is a natural opportunity to catch up, evaluate past systems and make intelligent plans for the future, whether in our personal lives or business. Year-end closing often involves gathering up loose papers and filing them. Correspondence, paid bills, receipts and more: if such things don’t have a place they should. “A place for everything and everything in its place,” as the old saying has it. As importantly, every thing should have one and only one logical place it should be. End of year is a good time to check that, tidy, and confirm one has a solid plan for archiving and backup.

Begin with the End in Mind

Usually when someone calls me it is because something has reached a point of crisis or breakdown. “Good-enough” systems have been improvised and organically evolved, pieced together from this and that over a period of time. Perhaps they developed across a series of different machines and people, with little attention to the broader whole and context. This, I like to think, is where I add value: What is all this stuff? Why keep it? How to keep it so that it helps and is not detritus or clutter? Since anything worth doing is worth doing well, the answer to those things determines all that follows.

In the early 90’s Stephen Covey wrote a popular book called “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” which focused on key concepts and launched such buzzwords as “proactive” and “synergize.” The second habit was to “begin with the end in mind” and is one that I often use with my clients. Every business does some sort of bookkeeping, but why? In the beginning it is mostly so that one can see where the money goes, not drop any and fill out government forms at the end of each tax period. Of those, the tax form is usually the scariest, so I suggest they begin there. In cooperation with their accountant, I ask them what tax forms they will need to fill out each period and determine a chart of accounts that makes sense for them, so they can properly classify equipment, supplies, revenues and so forth. Once we have identified key outputs such as line 9 on IRS schedule 1040c, it is relatively simple to design a system that helps them capture this data and preserve it properly on paper or the computer. Legal and medical offices solved many of these problems decades ago, but most folks have not taken the time to do so. One of the things I do is ask clients to identify what is most important and then organize it in a way that captures it and preserves it for later, near-instant retrieval, whether now, six months from now, or ten years later.

A Sample Network for Data Management

The recent coming-of-age for network and cloud products for backup and file sharing has been a boon for individuals, small businesses and non-profits, making it simpler to deploy redundant systems with off-the-shelf hardware in a way that streamlines workflows and lowers overall cost. Below is a diagram of a fairly typical network.

Master plan for data management network

Individuals can usually get by with a couple of external hard drives (one for back-up, a second for yearly, off-site archives), a subscription to an online backup service such as Crash Plan and a few key photocopies kept in a safety deposit box or at a friend’s house. Simple plans and simple tools are usually the best, in my experience, because they have the fewest number of moving parts. For clarity and reliability, keep things as simple as possible.


I set up a client almost exactly as above one week ago, using two inexpensive hard drives (one for time use with machine, another for off-site archive), a one-year off-site CrashPlan subscription and a simple account to coordinate data he wants to access from a friend’s Windows computer running QuickBooks once a month (since he didn’t need to buy the program himself). Very simple and rock-solid for just over $200. Over-achievers may wish to create a bootable “clone” on their Time Machine disk as well, but the basics are very achievable.

File and Data Management on the Mac

“A place for everything and everything in its place” is a terrific maxim, and one that most people and businesses can slightly improve upon by designing systems where there is one and only one logical place for each piece of information. Earlier this year I helped present on this topic at a local meeting of Macintosh business owners, the “slide deck” presentation for which is below.

The system that makes the most sense for most people, in my experience, is one that organizes work by year and project, because this encourages annual review of files and sorting things into logical archives. System-wide tools such as Spotlight for Mac OS X and Google Desktop make it easier to find things scattered willy-nilly across a single hard drive, but that is no reason to do so. An ideal system will have someone who is the designated “data cop” to periodically review files and the system. I’ve read of one company has a designated “dumpster day” whenever the 31st of the month falls on a workday. A casual-dress day focused on housekeeping, meetings are prohibited before noon and lunch is provided with the opportunity for workgroups and departments to have status meetings in the afternoon. Tidying and organizing is the main business for that day, guaranteeing that it takes place several times each year. For most of us this is work that can take place during “down time” such as waiting on hold or when other things get canceled.

No system works if it is not clearly understood and practiced. Writing out the larger structure of your data management plan is terrific, as a reference for everyone (including our future selves). Professional organizers have long suggested this as a general practice, and a simple file at the top-level of every organizing system that explains how it works is a great “table of contents” or preface. For folks without a more logical system, simply putting all media files into iTunes or iPhoto is a start, as is periodically sub-dividing one’s “Downloads” folder and email as date-labelled chunks. If one cannot find something or explain where it *should* be within thirty seconds, does it effectively exist? Good systems capture data for quick retrieval over time with minimal hassle, distraction and waste.

If you have file naming conventions and clear folder structures, take the time to document them, and consider including a short document explaining them at the top level of each filing system as a reminder. I will frequently place a plain-text file called “about.txt” at the top level of a folder or directory as a note to my future, forgetful self about what is in the folder and why I put it there. Explanations of the general filing system can similarly be placed at key places within the system itself, functioning as a training tool and quick reference. Periodically review the files and the policy to make sure that they are in agreement. No system is so perfect that it will work unless periodically monitored for consistent follow-through.

Archives, Backups and Disaster Recovery

Data management is key to general business continuity, and key to any good data management program is a clear understanding of what I call the “ABC’s of Data.” For all data, it is useful to distinguish between (A) archive copies, (B) backups and (C) current copies, whatever sort of (D) data and wherever it may be.

MacRory ABC's of Data management

Current copies are the main working documents, including drafts and ephemeral items such as email, to-do lists and calendars. Not all of these need to be on the computer so long as it is clear where they are and that they are stored for later retrieval as needed. For an email, this is usually the copy in one’s email program. For phone messages it might be a slip of paper.

Backup copies are second copies of current documents for disaster recovery. One copy is right next to no copy at all, so a backup copy is *always* a second copy and is usually accessed only in case of emergency. For Mac OS 10.5 and later, the simplest way to create backup copies is to use OS X’s built-in “Time Machine” technology and an attached hard drive or network volume on a server or a device such as Apple’s Time Capsule wireless hub. Other systems exist but any backup system should be checked with periodic “fire drills” to practice restoring a given file. Too often I have seen people who *thought* they had backups find out that they were really years old or unreadable. For an email, the backup may be something as simple as the copy of a message left for a few days on the server. For phone messages it might be an NCR copy of the message kept in a designated phone-message book.

Archive copies are more or less permanent copies of files intended to serve as a long-term record. Ideally archives should be well-organized and accessible regardless of program or computer platform. I recommend reviewing archives at least yearly and physically copying archives every 2-3 years lest one get caught with an aging 8.5″ floppy disk for an Epson QX-10 or a MacWrite Pro file on a cracked SyQuest cartridge. PDF copies of key reports such as year-end accounting data are an excellent thing to keep on hand and (for some records) a larger archive strategy may involve keeping around an old computer which can run older programs. Again “fire drills” are a good practice, and at least one copy of the archive should be kept “off site” at another location or in a safety deposit box, as protection against theft, flood or fire.

External drives are the bane of many people and businesses, because they tend not to be catalogued, backed up or maintained. If you or your business uses external drives, the normal rules about archives, backups and current copies still apply, but across more places. Please do NOT assume that old documents are on a drive in some closet, especially if the closet is disorganized, drives unlabeled and the person who put them there long forgotten. Data management is key to institutional memory, planning for legal compliance and general business continuity.

Below is another presentation I helped give on the general issue of file and data management for small business, earlier this year.

The main thing, again, is (1) to have a clear system, (2) to follow the system and (3) periodically monitor it and perhaps change it as needed. For Help with Computer File and Data Management

Whether you are a law office, medical office, genealogist, author or other organization, please consider contacting for help in evaluating and implementing a better file and data management plan. Simply phone (360) 666-7679 to set up a complimentary meeting and assessment.

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