How to organise your data

By Anthony Caruana | July 4, 2013

Now that the amount of data we store is moving from gigabytes to terabytes - with petabytes just around the corner - it's critical that we think carefully about how we store our data. Not only so we can find what we're looking for, but also so we can be sure it's protected.

Let's look at two different scenarios for managing your data. You are a:

  1. One-person business.

  2. Small business with several staff members.

The one-person business

As a one-person company, chances are you're only using one computer or possibly a desktop and notebook. Either way, life is relatively simple, as you don't have to worry too much about sharing your data.

Keep all your files and data in one main folder, divided up into subfolders. Don't get too fancy with lots of folders in folders, as you want to make it easy to save things and retrieve them later.

The structure is really up to you and how you work. If you have several clients, a folder for each client is a good way to go. Set aside folders for other data such as scanned receipts, correspondence, copies of invoices, contracts and other documents.

Both Macs and Windows PCs make it easy to find files on your computer as they include sophisticated search tools. For Windows XP, Vista and 7 you'll find the search under the Start menu. With Windows 8, it's in the Charms bar - the icons that pop up when you either slide your finger across the right edge of the screen if you have a touchscreen or when you press Windows-C.

With a Mac, the search function, called Spotlight, is invoked by using clicking the magnifying glass icon in the top right corner of the screen or by using the Command-Spacebar keyboard shortcut.

By keeping everything in one main folder you can easily back things up.

If you need to synchronise files [see How to sync, share and save data] between a desktop and notebook computer then you only have to worry about one folder.

When you have several staff

One of the biggest challenges in a multi-person business is getting everyone to agree with centrally storing critical information. It's often a good idea for small businesses to invest in either a small server or a NAS device. Either of these will provide a central location that doesn't rely on a specific staff member keeping their computer on.

A network-attached storage (NAS) device is a collection of hard drives, in a specialised unit that's sole purpose is providing storage on a network. You can create folders that are shared across everyone or only specific people.

The same principles apply here. By centralising, there's only one location that needs to be backed up. Even though a NAS system is more reliable than the hard drive in a computer, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be backed up. You still need to have its data duplicated and stored off-site.

Action plan

If your files are all over the place, what can you do about it?

  1. Start by doing an inventory of all the work files and data you have.

  2. Look for patterns in the information so you can come up with a simple categorisation system.

  3. Create a new folder on your computer, or on a centralised storage device if you have several staff, and then create subfolders in that folder than match with the data categories from Step 2.

  4. Copy - don't move - the files from their current location to the new folders.

  5. Check that everything has been copied to the location correctly before deleting the original files.

Spend time properly organising your data now and your business will be more efficient for years to come.


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