One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given came from an attorney coaching me on how to respond to government questions regarding an anti-trust case. She told me, "Don’t draw lines that divide." This advice has proven invaluable to me through the years, as I tried to draw a circle that included all parties rather than define a line between parties that divides.
Today, I’m going to ignore that advice and boldly draw a line that divides. Regarding data, information and your company’s document control, there are two kinds of people—those who use a formal, structured approach to document control and the rest of us. On which side of this line are you? How about your people?
My approach to document storage dates back to the pre-PC days. Our plant had a confidential secretary, and all typing and correspondence went through her. A single, simple folder marked "Correspondence," with documents arranged in date sequence, was the fastest available retrieval technology at that time. By the time the sales department had found its copy of something in the appropriate folder lurking on someone’s desk, additional copies could have already been made from the copy I kept in my one folder.
Then the PC came along. I selected "Q&A" as my word processor/database program, and all of my files were saved on the hard drive of my PC. By the time we needed to document our quality system, we had moved to a program called "AmiPro." While all of our files were created on a single PC, we had back-up copies on floppy disks. Still, it was one person, one machine and one file system, but with a local backup.
Microsoft Word and networked PCs on every desk changed this forever. Everyone with a workstation became empowered to be a content creator. File systems still were organized according to user preferences, but they were assigned space on the "corporate commons," something they called our "local file server."
This central server resource became the location for all documents to be stored, rather than on the individual’s PC, except for the guy with the laptop—he needed to take his computing power along with him to visit customers. Oh, what a mess we had.
Is the file I’m looking for here? There? On the server? On the hard drive? On a floppy? In "My Documents?" On the desktop? I don’t know, but when I find it, I’ll make a duplicate and put it here, there and everywhere. I don’t want to lose this precious file.
Eventually, I ran into some pretty capable people with a structured approach to document control. They brought a discipline that a document was uncontrolled if it was a hard copy. The only controlled copy lived on a server. Their approach was simple, elegant and focused.
In our organization, they knew what information and data we should have. They assigned a place for it and created a structured file format that facilitated its use. Their procedures and file structures made information management a repeatable and robust process. And there were "no worries" about latest versions either. Finally, a means existed that beat my now very cumbersome, random-access, "Did I put it there, or did I put it here" system.
Without such a structured approach to managing information, each PC is a virtual digital dumpster. I believe that is the real reason behind the saying, "Garbage in, garbage out." Your company faces the daily risk that each of those digital dumpsters might leak or that some of your company’s valuable data could be thrown away.
Does your company have a strategy to manage information? How that information is to be transferred, saved, stored, archived and deleted? Document retention policies used to mean lugging boxes to the shredder. Now, documents are increasingly virtual and digital.
Do you have a documented procedure or process for storing information on your company’s ever-growing computer system? A process that differentiates between controlled and uncontrolled documents? Who empties the digital dumpster? Have you ever had to go "dumpster diving" to find a critical piece of data or report?
My hard drives and I are still not traditionally organized. But the lessons of my colleagues to create a strategy and process to manage documents as an organization (rather than as a collection of well-meaning individuals) can provide you with a valuable reward—the information that your people need, when they need it, to serve your customers.
Now where did I put that photo of the dumpster?