Wasting 30 minutes looking for a document may not break your business, but it's still frustrating. A good filing system saves time and reduces inconvenience. An alphanumeric system identifying files by a mix of letters and numbers is one way to go.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
The classic alphanumeric filing system example is the Library of Congress. Letters identify broad categories, such as "K" for law and "S" for agriculture. A mix of numbers and letters identifies subtopics and the author's name.
Alpha and Numeric Filing
The Library of Congress relies on alpha and numeric filing to organize its massive collection of books. Major categories of knowledge are labeled by a letter, such as "N" for art. Major subcategories get two letters, such as "NB" for sculpture and "ND" for painting. The letters in this alphanumeric filing system example are not based on the first letter of the topic.
Topics within each category are identified by a four-digit number, possibly with added decimal points and letters. Then comes the author's first initial and more numbers. The organization of topics is different from the Dewey Decimal System, but like Dewey, finding something is not intuitively obvious.
The major advantage of alphanumeric filing systems is that they're flexible enough to cover any division of topics and large enough to hold a variety of records. The Library of Congress itself has 168 million items on file, so your business files should be a cakewalk by comparison.
Rearranging files for a new system is massively inconvenient, so it's better to get it right the first time. If you're not a solo act, talk to the rest of your office team about your plans and ask for feedback before you launch the new filing system.
- What types of documents do you have, and which ones are you likely to have in the future?
- How do you want to group them? Possible categories include job applicants, suppliers, customers, employee records, accounts payable, accounts receivable and contracts.
- How will you label them? An alphanumeric system for categories and subcategories is one way, but you could also go with numbers. Alternatively, you can just stick names on the big categories, such as legal, inventory or onboarding.
- How will you organize paperwork within each category? One possibility is that within a given topic, you organize by the name of the employee, supplier or customer who is relevant to the paper.
Rules and Organization
One disadvantage of an alphanumeric filing system is that it runs by rules that are more arbitrary and less intuitive than filing everything alphabetically. However, it is more organized. If you file employees, customers and suppliers alphabetically, you'll end up spending more time searching than if you separate the categories.
It is essential that you work out the alphanumeric filing system rules to cover all the categories and subcategories. For an alphanumeric filing system example, "1" could be customer records and "2" could be employees, with individuals and businesses in each category filed alphabetically. Alternatively, "1" could be accounts receivable, "1A" could be past-due accounts and "1B" could be accounts you've written off.
Once you work out the alphanumeric filing system rules, you need to write them down and keep them in an obvious place near your paper files. The same is true for any filing system.
Watch for Booby Traps
With whatever system you eventually use, you need to avoid common mistakes.
- Have a central filing system everyone can access and direct employees who take files out to put them back when they're done. If files wind up sitting on people's desks, no organization is going to make them findable.
- If your filing cabinets use hanging folders for the major categories, place Manila folders inside them for subcategories. That will reduce the amount of time you and your staff spend searching.
- Printed file labels are easier to read and understand than handwritten ones.
- Relevant electronic files should follow the same naming conventions. If you have a hard-copy file for marketing or online promotion, use the same name on your computers.
- The Library of Congress: Library of Congress Classification Outline
- The Library of Congress: Library of Congress Classification
- The Library of Congress: Fascinating Facts
- Small Business Trends: How to Create a Filing System That Works for Your Business
- Staples: 5 Office Filing System Mistakes to Avoid
Fraser Sherman has written about every aspect of business: how to start one, how to keep one in the black, the best business structure, the details of financial statements. He's also run a couple of small businesses of his own. He lives in Durham NC with his awesome wife and two wonderful dogs. His website is frasersherman.com