Saturday, April 20, 2013

Efficient Document Management 101*

Repost of something I sent to staff at my place of work late last year. Still relevant.

An interesting survey was recently announced into staff printing, copying and fax. I didn't feel I should answer, because I would be an outlier in the results anyway, but this last question caught my eye:
What more could be done within the Division to encourage efficient document management?
There are a few things I can suggest, based on my own experience. I decided to go paperless around two years ago, and I have not printed or copied anything since. I think I was forced to send a fax, once, and found the process . . . quaint.

It does help that I have an iPad, which is great for keeping all your documents in an available space at all times. But I also happily read work related documents on my desktop screen or my laptop at home. I've never had a problem with that, and while I know many people say they don't like reading on the screen, I strongly suspect that's more about habit than anything else. And reading on the screen is obviously more efficient than the alternative "download attachment, send to printer, fetch from printer, read, file" process.

Since most documents are received by email now, let's look at that first:
  1. Email is a ready-made filing system in itself. There is no sane reason for printing and filing emails, because they'll always be available in your email folders. Ditch the filing cabinet -- it's not searchable!
  2. There's no sane reason to save attachments to disk, then move them somewhere else. They'll always be there, in your mailbox. See #1.
  3. If you're going to write a brief Word document and then attach it to an email, consider yourself an idiot. You're wasting time, and you're wasting the time of the recipients. Just write the thing in email. You can even format emails now, pretty much everything you need for standard documents is there in email.
  4. Remember to organise your email. If you keep everything in your Inbox, it will be harder to find things later, and eventually the Inbox will implode and create a black hole that sucks all your stuff into oblivion. Create some other folders according to what makes sense for you. Set up some filters so emails are "filed" automatically. Make the system do the work. That's what it's for.
So that's email.

What about document creation?
  1. As noted above, if your document is short and will be sent via email, then just send an email. Don't make extra work by using Word for something that will be just as effective as an email. Putting words into a Word document does not make them more important, valuable or intelligible.
  2. You may have "done a course" and be able to use all kinds of fancy pants stuff in Word. Don't. Just don't. Nobody cares how clever you are, and more importantly, if anyone else has to edit one of your documents, they may go insane trying to make it work, and then they'll hate you. Nobody needs more hate.
  3. Keep focus on the objective, which is to impart information. Ideally, send out documents as PDF, because that's what it's for. PDF = Portable Document Format. Then everybody is guaranteed to be able to read it. Even on a tablet.
  4. If you're creating a form for people to fill out and return, create a web form instead. Nobody wants to fill out your crappy form in the first place, so at least make it easy for them. And a web form can supply the intelligence lacking in people before they've had their coffee. (Like automagically calculating a number of hours from start and end dates.)
What about Fax?

You're kidding, right? In the 21st Century? No.


No. But you could try …


Good idea. Because no matter how green you try to be, someone will inevitably send or give you bits of paper. When that happens, I just scan anything I need to keep, and bin anything else after I've read it. I have a scanner on my desk, but your office should have a copier that also scans. And if you have an iPad or a smart phone, that will also take a serviceable copy of any document. (Ideally, take a photo in front of the person who was crass enough to give you a piece of paper. Embarrassment is the best way to change behaviour.‡)

To summarise, the key to efficient document management is fewer documents. OK, so that's not going to happen, but we can take steps to ensure we spend less time managing the documents we do have. Ideally, documents should be electronic, because any time you have a piece of paper, you have to spend time doing stuff to manage it: filing it, hunting for it later, copying it for others, filing it again, ... So much simpler to keep an electronic copy.


* "101" is something Americans do to indicate a beginner's course in something. No-one in the rest of the world knows why.†

† OK, so we do know why. But it's a specifically American thing.

‡ That's actually a joke. It's not nice to embarrass people.