Folders versus Tagging. Which Document Organization is Best?

How do you best organize growing documentation?

Your business documents can be ordered using one or a combination of two organizational strategies, folders and tags. In recent years there has been a gradual shift away from folders to tagging. In this post I examine why many major applications such as Google Gmail and Microsoft SharePoint have started to move away from folders and adopt tag-based organization.

The traditional hierarchical file structure has been around for a very long time and offers you some important advantages. Firstly, folders are easy to use and understand. They create a predictable and well-defined document structure on our desktops. Secondly, we have grown both familiar and proficient with using folders for our document organization.

In a Microsoft Windows environment, we have used several successive generations of Windows Explorer to locate and organize our documents with folders and multiple levels of sub-folders. Carefully designed and labeled, folder structures can prove effective and easy-to-use.

Folder labeling and organization can, however, prove problematic. Your photograph collection provides a good example of the limitations of folders as an organizational structure. Almost all pictures can be categorized in one of several ways (e.g., date, location, subject, photographer, etc.). As a result, pictures can prove increasingly difficult to locate in a large collection using a conventional hierarchical structure.

Consistent labelling and categorization can prove even more difficult, particularly when there is more than one person responsible for maintaining the organizational structure. Family members are likely to adopt different approaches to the labeling and filing of the same picture. This inconsistency then results in lengthy and repetitious picture searches. It also risks lost and/or redundant pictures.

Tagging provides an organizational alternative or compliment to folders. Tags are flat and offer no hierarchical structure through which you can navigate and narrow your search for information. Instead, tags are basically keywords (tags, labels, keywords and metadata are often used interchangeably) that can be attached to your documents. Tagging is a quick, simple, and highly flexible method of indexing your documents.

Tagging allows your documents to be searched, sorted, or grouped based on the tags that you have attached to them. You can tag documents with an unlimited number of keywords such as date, title, subject area, subject keywords, author, or publisher.

Tagging avoids the necessity of creating and maintaining complex folder structures to accommodate large and varied sets of documents. It also avoids the need for arbitrary organizational decisions that force a document into a specific folder. As a result, documents can be more accurately described and more efficiently located.

Consider a simple example. You download a sales document concerning contact management systems. Do you file the document under the vendor, contact management, marketing, or a systems folder? Or do you create four copies of the file and put one copy in each folder? With tagging, you attach four keywords (vendor name, contact management, marketing, and systems) to the document thereby allowing users to search and locate the document using any one of those keywords.

Many document management products (e.g., Microsoft SharePoint) are moving away from hierarchical organizational structures. In fact, many system developers now consider folders antiquated given the flexible, powerful, and efficient alternative of tagging. It is important, therefore, to give serious consideration to document tagging in your organizational system.

Technology’s Impact on Reader Experience

Kindle: A new generation's medium

Sara Barbour argues in a recent editorial that paper-based books create a unique reader experience and connection that cannot be replicated with more modern media such as desktops and tablets.

She states:

“But once we all power up our Kindles something will be gone, a kind of language. Books communicate with us as readers — but as important, we communicate with each other through books themselves. When that connection is lost, the experience of reading — and our lives — will be forever altered”.

Why the romantic attachment to leather and paper? Can’t we build a similar relationship with plastic and assorted electronic componentry? To answer these questions we need to take a closer look at books and the stories and messages that they share.

I first read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings when I was eighteen. I loved the story and Tolkien’s many observations on life. I related to the very ordinary nature of hobbits who were unwittingly swept into adventure by circumstances outside of their control. I connected with the helplessness and chaos which I found both frightening and exhilarating.

Why had this story touched my heart? Would I have felt differently had I read from a Kindle? Interestingly, I can share some insight on that question. Shortly after I started my first year of studies at UBC I discovered the Wilson Recordings library which offered a large collection of vinyl LPs (long-playing records for those of you too young to remember). Hidden amongst its collection of music was a two-album recording of The Hobbit read by Tolkien.

Certain that it would prove more entertaining than studying, I sat down and listened to Tolkien’s full two-hour narration. Entranced, I dug deep into my pockets and rushed out to buy the deluxe hardcover edition of Lord of the Rings (the 1974 collector’s edition complete with imitation leather covers). Since that reading, I have developed a life-long addition to this book which I typically reread every 1-2 years.

I was drawn to Lord of the Rings not because of The Hobbit’s novel media but by love of the story and a strong connection with its characters. The recording may, in some measure, have enhanced the story through Tolkien’s vocal depiction of his many characters. On reflection, however, this enhancement is largely forgotten and seems inconsequential in relation to my thirty-five year love affair with this story.

I suspect it may be the same for books. Perhaps, for some, the touch of paper and smell of leather enhances their reading experience. Books are easier to admire and remember in a library than as files hidden on your handheld or desktop computer.

I can also understand that books would be important for parents and children where sharing a book is both a tactile (point and touch) and auditory experience. I’d suggest, however, that the added enhancement is comparatively minor and will be quickly forgotten in relation to the life-long memories of stories and their characters.

Parents and children will continue to bond with stories by A.A. Milne and J.M. Barrie whether they’re read from a book, a Kindle, or perhaps, in the future, watched as holographic novels.

What’s a Wiki?

Wikis - community-maintained documentation

A wiki is a website that allows you to create and maintain any number of interlinked web pages using a web browser and a simplified WYSIWG (what you see is what you get) text editor.

Wikis are often used collaboratively by a user community to capture, maintain and distribute information. Examples include business intranets, project websites, community forums, and knowledge management systems.

Businesses are increasingly using wikis to support online business documentation including operations manuals, policies, procedures, and service and product descriptions.

Have a look at this wiki-based operations manual website.

Wikis provide major advantages over traditional paper-based documentation including:

  • Dynamic. Wikis support keyword searches, multi-media support, and cross-referencing with hypertext links.
  • Maintainability. Wikis can be quickly learned, used, and maintained by any non-technical user.
  • Instantaneous. Wikis don’t rely on a publisher to create and circulate document updates.
  • Accessibility. Wikis can be can accessed and maintained from any location at any time.
  • Change control. Wikis keeps track of every edit and previous versions are easily restored.
  • Flexibility. Wiki structure, navigation, and style are easily customized.
  • Minimal cost. Wikis are available in numerous open source systems.

Many organizations have resisted wikis on the basis that community-maintained documentation is unreliable. They argue that document errors, omissions, and inconsistencies flourish in the absence of editorial oversight. Research, however, has shown that this is not the case.

The British journal Nature examined the relative accuracy of Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica. They discovered that these two sources were very comparable in terms of factual errors, omissions, and misleading statements. Given the documentation quality possible with Wikipedia’s diverse community of 13,000 volunteer contributors, it is probable that equal or superior documentation quality can be maintained with smaller communities using similar controls.

Wikis can be set-up on virtually any webserver, whether in-house or third-party hosted. Wikis are particularly attractive to small businesses that have no intranet or local area network (LAN). Almost all website hosting companies provide the tools required to support a wiki including server-side scripting and database support.

Once installed and configured, the wiki can be seamlessly integrated with your existing website. This approach requires no hardware or software investment but instead levers your existing website hosting services.

Wikis provide a very powerful and easy-to-use tool for business owners to document their day-to-day operations. Rather than creating costly third-party dependencies, Wikis empower the subject matter experts (i.e., the owners and designated staff) to capture, maintain, and protect your business’ intellectual property. As a result, they provide a low-cost, low-overhead approach to documentation that will improve organizational scalability, streamline business operations, and strengthen future business options.

Look past the out-dated and paper-based manuals of the past and give serious consideration to empowering your business and staff with wikis.