Skip to content Skip to navigation

Better Manage Electronic Files

Better Manage Electronic Records

After years of growth, departments are finding that their shared drives have grown and evolved without any real oversight –and now things are messy! It may take a half hour or more to find the document that is being sought… precious and expensive time wasted. The good news is that establishing a new structure, or even cleaning up the old one, is a completely manageable process. The following six steps will help guide you through the process of creating and implementing a new structure in your department or office:

Step 1: Review your existing file structure to identify what isn’t working. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you have too many files? Are some redundant?
  • Do you need to establish better naming conventions, because “Jen’s files” doesn’t mean anything to anyone in your office anymore? (for more about naming conventions, see this blog post on planning for a “paperless office.”)
  • Has the nature of your department’s work changed over time so that now you have a lot of unused folders that you aren’t sure how to manage?
  • Are you frequently unsure which is the “final version”?
  • Does it take too long to find the document you need “right away”?

Also, take some time to think about what DOES work:

  • Do the Finance folks have a good electronic file system, but the Communications folks do not? If so, what can you learn from Finance?
  • Do you have good version control systems for final drafts? Could this method be used department-wide?

You may not need to change everything, but you do need to be able to identify what works well and what needs improvement.

Step 2: Communicate! Creating a new structure for shared electronic files requires a lot of buy-in. A project like this is best undertaken with at least a few conversations about how files are currently managed and used by your staff, and what they think will improve the system. Creating and implementing a new file structure will require time to adjust, and good communication about how things are changing will help mitigate any anxiety about learning to do things differently. Engage your staff in the process so that they are more likely to maintain the changes you are trying to make.

Step 3: Identify a few “big buckets” to serve as a new file structure or as top levels of folders in a new hierarchy. These buckets should relate directly to the main functional areas of your department. While you can theoretically have as many of these buckets as you need, we suggest aiming for fewer than ten to keep things manageable. These buckets should have descriptive names that are clear and intuitive. Avoid personal names, if possible.

Step 4: Depending on how many sub-folders are necessary, identify smaller buckets within each of the top level big buckets. The same principles for naming and number apply.

Step 5: Take a few minutes to document your new structure. Depending on the size of your office and the complexity/volume of your files, documenting your big and little buckets goes a long way towards getting everyone on the same page. This documentation should answer the following questions:

  • What goes in each bucket and why?
  • How do these buckets relate to your paper files?
  • Are there any special naming conventions? (for more about naming conventions, see this post on planning for a “paperless office.”)
  • How do these records relate to the Harvard University General Records Schedule?

Use this guide to train new employees and make sure the conventions and structure you agreed upon will continue to be used and maintained.

Step 6: The final step is to address how you will move your active files into the new structure. The good news is that you have a few options. 1) You could decide to transfer your existing files into the new structure, changing file names as necessary. Undertake this step with care so as not to lose anything. You’ll likely find that you’ve got some files or documents leftover after everything has been transferred. Though we don’t usually advise creating “miscellaneous” folders, you might consider keeping these files together in a folder labeled “outdated,” “orphaned files,” or another title that clarifies these files are no longer useful but perhaps shouldn’t be deleted. Or, 2) you could choose to implement your new system, filing newly created files into it and copying existing records into the new structure as you need them, and maintain the old system as a record of the previous structure and a repository for any unused or outdated files that remain. Both of these approaches have merit, so it will be helpful to consider your office practice and documentation strategies to ensure that files are not inadvertently lost through lack of current use.

You can find more information on managing your shared electronic network in these articles:

The Archives and Records Management staff at the Countway Library has assisted with projects to “clean up” shared file networks around HMS and would be happy to address questions, concerns, and share what we have learned. We even have some nice templates for documenting your new structure. Please contact us at:



Help Topic(s): 
Library Services