File Naming and Structure – To Organize or Not to Organize?
When I was asked to write about File Naming and File Structure Best Practices, I remembered the first book I read on the topic back in the late 1980s, although the name escapes me now. I was about 15 years old at the time, and my dad was having trouble keeping track of all the programs he was installing and the files he was creating. In other words, his brain did not naturally organize things. This was obvious to me because my mom was the opposite – a rigidly organized person – and she constantly argued with him to keep his piles of stuff from filling the house.
What does that have to do with File Naming and File Structure Best Practices, and what can I say that hasn’t already been said by people who have dedicated significant portions of their lives to the topic? Even more importantly, why should you care? Isn’t this best left to the data nerds at Apple, Google, and Microsoft? Probably yes, but I can tell you what the nerds won’t tell you: how to think about File Naming and File Structures.
Let’s not spend your time rehashing “Best Practices” because you can Google them. Instead, let’s talk about why the names of files matter, and how organizing them impacts your business by dragging or propelling your operations.
What's in a name?
You know people who are instantly put off when you call them by the wrong name. The same kind of thing happens when other people can’t find your files. There are volumes about naming things that describe why names are critical for communication. File names are no different. If your intention is to collaborate and cooperate with others, then the names of your files should communicate the most succinct and relevant details to them about the content of that file. If your intention is to hide sensitive data, then consider coded file names. (Automated systems might use randomly generated file names among other security features to store highly sensitive and confidential data.)
To Organize or Not to Organize? That is THE question!
One of the reasons I mentioned Apple, Google, and Microsoft by name in this article is because each of them has their own approach to organization that can help you think about where your business is and where you want it to be. On one end of the spectrum is Apple who is highly organized and has a place for everything, as evidenced by everything they do from UI & hardware design to physical store layout and internal operations. Few companies are as meticulous as Apple. Google, on the other end of the spectrum, embraces “ordered chaos,” which was an original founding principle of Google Search that made its way into Gmail and revolutionized tired old ideas about data organization. There might not be another company that consciously embraces chaos as well as Google. (Maybe Amazon.) Somewhere in the middle is Microsoft. They led the way with the traditional approach to data organization because they hired most of the nerds who invented the technology.
What sets these companies apart is how they think about business operations, and in turn how they attract the people who work there. Data organization is a critical part of this giant picture because it’s embedded into their communications, and their operations live or die based on how they think about organization. If most of their staff didn’t embrace their respective principles of organization, then they wouldn’t be as effective as they are.
I used to organize my email into folders and keep my inbox clear. My files were organized into folders and looked very neat and tidy. In time, I learned to accept that some of the organizing activities I was performing benefitted nobody, not even myself, except for satisfying an emotional attachment I had to the aesthetic of my organization. I eventually let that go, and let my inbox become cluttered and my files become less organized as I learned to utilize search more effectively. This wasn’t easy, because change isn’t easy, but I knew that I was biologically designed to learn and adapt. All I needed to do was practice. Now I spend less time organizing and more time taking care of the people and things that are more valuable to me than a meticulously organized folder that nobody – including myself – will ever see or use when I’m done. What changed? My thinking. I learned how to think differently about my meticulous behavior and learned to embrace organized chaos a little more. After all, I support all of you, who use products from various companies every single day, so it behooves me to embrace them and their differing business philosophies and approaches to data organization.
So how should you organize your data? That’s up to you. Remember that file names communicate essential details (or not, if you’re trying to hide confidential stuff), and those files can be organized into a hierarchy of folders. If there is an inherent hierarchy to business operations, then chances are that a folder structure that mirrors that hierarchy will be intuitive enough for most people. If your business operations are less hierarchical, then maybe spend less time on organizing files and more time implementing effective naming conventions and search skills. What drives this is the people who have to work with the data organization or lack thereof. Some of them are going to be highly meticulous, like my mom. Some of them are going to be inherently messy, like my dad. Most of them are probably going to be somewhere in the middle, like Microsoft. And there’s no reason for their individual approaches to be mutually exclusive. Embrace and learn to leverage their strengths so that they can collaborate effectively with however the data is organized.