Filing Your Organizational Memory

Enjoy another post from our colleague, Sarah.


Most adults in the United States are familiar with the Dewey Decimal System. This systematic classification method for shelving books in a library is used in over 135 countries. What makes the Dewey Decimal system so special? It allows anyone to go to the library and identify exactly where the book they want is located. It is predictable. It has withstood the test of time. Melville Dewey created this filing system in 1876, and we still use it today, over 130 years later!

Over the past several posts, we have discussed items that we need to identify to help us record our organizational memory. Once we have identified these items, we need to create a sound filing and classification system to maintain our organizational memory. This system, similar to the Dewey Decimal system, needs to withstand the test of time and be very useable and logical. This is a very challenging part of this process, but is perhaps one of the most important steps into keeping an organizational memory thriving.

Having a diverse “dream team” comes in handy here.  Each of them will be able to represent the needs of their areas, or will be able to gather that information from their coworkers, once a basic file structure is defined. Because I cannot speak to everyone’s specific needs without visiting your organization, I am going to provide a few samples to consider as you start the process. Remember, this requires brainstorming possibilities, and as you do, a final structure reveal itself through the various options.

Division by Department

Many organizations are divided up into multiple departments. When you begin your file structure, you might want to consider breaking your filing system into departments. This option might work best if the departments have very defined duties and services they offer. If their files will naturally be unique and will not have any overlap with other departments, this is a good beginning.

Suppose we identify four main departments for our Company X: customer service, human resources, maintenance, and telemarketing. We need to look at the resources we have gathered as part of our previous steps and see how the pieces fit into this basic structure. Some pieces may not fit into your structure. Put those items together, and let the materials guide you in identifying more folders for your structure. During the process you may also find that there seem to be key pieces of information missing for your structure that need to be added or created. Make note of those and we will handle them later.

Attached is an example of how your first file structure might look - it's titled Table 1.0 Sample File Structure - Division by Department. I encourage you to print this Table and reference it while you read the remainder of this post.

Remember that as we begin the process, we allow for brainstorming and you may find the structure won’t work for you at all. Some companies have lots of information by year, others by item, and others by colleges or schools. My goal is to help you begin the brainstorming process and help you discover the structure the one that will work best for you.

As you can see from our sample, some items were able to be nicely placed into a folder designated for a department, but other items didn’t fit into the current structure. In addition, as they reviewed the items they had on hand, they were able to see some holes in their memory files. Maintenance didn’t provide any policy or procedures guides or any handbooks about their work in the company. When an office cannot provide these items, a red flag should be raised because if something happened to the current staff in that area, there might not be any materials to assist the next person in “picking up where they left off.”

As the team reviewed this structure, they also believed that items that were housed under telemarketing, like the Training Guide, could be useful for other departments. This is a negotiable process. You don’t want to create a structure that would prevent employees from finding the information they need, so if you see that the structure might be excluding important information from certain groups within the organization, you might consider reworking the structure to be inclusive, while still providing logical housing for the files.

Next time we will explore another file structure based on the information we discovered through the first brainstorming session. Sarah

Sarah Barton currently serves as Registrar at Ohio Valley University. She has over twelve years experience working in the areas of records maintenance, database management, grant writing, grant administration, and organizational assessment. When she is not working, she is a wife and mother of three children, a mixed media artist, a cook and an active member of her church family.