5 February 2013

How to Manage the Filing Monster

I wonder if you’re like a teacher I spoke to in the past.

He was grumbling into his coffee cup: ‘The year’s only just started, but I’ve already got a backlog of paperwork waiting to be filed. That pile’s like a monster – it just gobbles up everything. Day by day it gets bigger and more ugly! What can I do?’

Before we give you some useful pointers, let’s look at the scope of the issue. With storage and paper management, there are three main areas: and they all need to be handled or you won’t ever keep on top of all those records legislation and educational accountabilities demand.

Three key areas of paper management:

1. Have the right equipment

2. Have good systems

3. Maintain those systems

For this article, let’s take one aspect of Point One – filing equipment.

There are three main styles of filing system:

a. Vertical (inserting material from above) into light cardboard folders suspended from metal runners in pullout drawers. The front of the file faces the user.

b. Lateral (inserting material from the side) into a range of folders, usually seated on shelves, with the end facing the user.

c. Top retrieval – a combination of the best features of both.

Which system shall we use? Consider three things:

a. Initial cost, including purchase of cabinetry and on-going stationery.

b. Ease of operation. Do people need special training to use complicated indexes? How easy is it to find files others are using?

c. Continuing costs. Wages, floor rent, and management and retrieval costs.

Vertical systems are a somewhat contentious subject in the records management industry. Many consultants will tell you that all the old faithful vertical filing cabinets are of no value except as scrap metal. I understand why they get so dogmatic – their work usually involves big companies with high wages bills, lots of filing, and expensive floor space, and they often get called in to clean up serious messes! However, if you’ve only got a small amount of information to handle and space isn’t a concern for you, they do the job well. Just be aware – there’s a downside.

When used in conjunction with hanging suspension sleeves, almost 200mm of space in each drawer is lost, before any files are added. This means that in a 4-drawer cabinet nearly a whole drawer will be taken up with stationery. Another option – if you want more space, and wish to stay with your existing cabinetry, the top retrieval method described below goes a long way to overcome this issue.

Lateral shelving

More and more schools are going this way: you’re running a large business, and often have multiple people accessing files.

Most lateral systems use an index to ensure you file in the correct category (and their colour coding makes it even more simple once the system’s in use). They take a little training to use and are a bit more expensive to purchase, but once set up they’re faster to operate, save space, and therefore save money on both wages and building costs. Their standardised colour-coding system dramatically reduces lost files and time spent looking for information, which of course means you can get on with teaching and/or managing your school, instead of unnecessary administration.

If you’re wondering who sets up these more complicated systems – relax. The company who provides you with the gear usually organises you and teaches how to use it.

Within the range of lateral filing, there are a number of choices.

Open shelf filing

These are freestanding cabinets, with no doors to the shelving. They’re commonly called open bay filing systems. Many people believe this is a security risk, but in reality very few organisations lock their lockable filing cabinets. The benefit is lower initial cost and again less space needed. I suggest you only get shelving with doors for real security needs, not for everything you file.

There are many types of storage stationery, with files placed sideways on the shelf instead of facing the user, inserted in the user’s choice of sleeves or pockets. They’re kept upright either with suspension sleeves (sometimes on a T-bar) or regularly spaced wire or metal uprights. The uprights allow maximum capacity for the files – much less space-consuming than the suspension folders in the old vertical filing cabinets.

Because the open bay system usually uses colour coding it is also very easy to see if a file has been misplaced. They can be as many as 5-6 shelves high, with top-shelf access easy with the kind of footstool you often see in libraries.

Lateral or open shelf cabinets

These are basically the same as the open shelves described above, with the addition of doors. Many come with space-saving folding or retractable doors but of course cost more, and still take a little more space than their ‘open to scrutiny’ brethren. Avoid ones whose doors open out into the room, unless your office is as spacious as an aircraft hanger!

Rotary filing

In a high-access situation where many people need to access files constantly this is one of the best solutions for swift access. If it can be positioned between a couple of workstations it only takes the same amount of space as its footprint – about 1 sq. metre – because the whole thing revolves on a central spindle. However, if out in the middle of the floor, you need to allow 3 sq. m, so space could again become an issue. Lever-arch binders fit well on the carousel rotaries. (But beware of lever-arches – they’re the most space-wasting system you can find).

Top retrieval

Before you rush to sweep out your faithful old upright filing cabinets and dive for the office equipment catalogue, consider another, not yet as well known but very effective top retrieval filing product (which of course the old vertical filing really is). In fact, this next top retrieval system is more modern even than the lateral method described above.

It keeps the ‘file from the top’ and ‘files facing forward in drawers’ approach, but eliminates the suspension folders, which of course saves space. Strong cardboard folders sit on the bottom of the file drawers, kept upright by wire, plastic or board containers. One of the reasons for the old style of suspension files, with the slim metal edges, is to create an anchor for the label. This modern top retrieval system has self-adhesive coloured and coated labels (called Speedtabs) that provide many of the advantages of the lateral colour coding, enabling misfiling to spring to your view instantly. The user is guided as to where to apply the tabs by the files being pre-printed with uniform alphabetic, numeric and calendar indices along the top. This enables an organisation to tailor-make any type of accurate filing classification. Their files can be easily incorporated into the regular vertical filing drawers you probably already have – you just won’t need the space-hungry old hanging suspension folders.

Most of these suppliers also make their own wide-drawer cabinetry, which takes three rows of files, side-by-side, and five deep. One of the brands I investigated could accommodate the contents of a traditional 4 drawer metal filing cabinet in only one of their drawers, and you should find most products comparative.

Simple criteria to help your choice

An easy rule-of-thumb, if you’ve already got one or two 3 or 4-drawer cabinets and that’s all you need, is probably to stay with your upright vertical cabinet. If you’ve already got the old system, there’s virtually never more than one person at a time at the filing cabinet, and your floor space rental isn’t very high, why change? However, you might want to consider using the modern top retrieval equipment in it.

Key Point – Storing information is knowledge management – expensive and necessary. Remember to consider the invisible costs of not managing it, or using the wrong system.





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