A simple guide to using shared drives to capture & classify electronic documents and emails

by Frank 18. July 2014 06:00

I have written previously about ways to solve the shared drives problem (click here) and I have written numerous articles (and a book) about ways to manage emails and electronic/digital records. However, we still receive multiple requests from customers and prospective customers about the best, and simplest, way to effectively manage these problems.

The biggest stumbling block and impediment to progress in most cases is the issue of a suitable taxonomy or classification system. Time and time again I see people putting off the solution while they spend years and tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars grappling with the construction of a suitable taxonomy. I have written about this topic previously as well and if you want my recommendations please click on this link.

If you really want the simplest, easiest to understand, easiest to use and lowest cost way to solve all of the above problems then please forget about spending the next twelve to eighteen months grappling with the nuances of your classification system. It isn’t necessary.

What you need instead is a natural classification structure that reflects your business processes. Please give your long-suffering end users something they will instantly recognize and can easily work with because it is familiar from their day to day work. Give them something to work with that doesn’t require them to become amateur records managers battling to decipher a complex, hierarchical classification system that requires an intricate knowledge of classification theory to interpret correctly. Give them something that makes it as easy as possible to file everything in the right place first time with absolutely minimal effort. Give them something that makes it as easy as possible to find something.

What I am proposing isn’t a hundred-percent solution and it won’t suit every organization but I guarantee that it will turn chaos into order in any organization that implements it. You may well see it as an eighty-five-percent solution but that is a hell of a lot better than no solution. It is also easy and fast to implement and relatively low cost (you will need some form of RM software).

First up you need to make decisions about what kind of business you are.  Notice that I said “what kind of business you are” not “what kind of records you manage” or “how your business is structured”.  Most importantly, strongly resist the temptation to base your classification structure on your existing business structure or organization’s departments/agencies and instead base it on your most common business processes. Please refer to the following extract from:

Overview of Classification Tools for Records Management by the National Archives of Australia, ISBN 0 642 34499 X (an excellent reference document if you need to understand classification systems).

“Classifying records and business information by functions and activities moves away from traditional classification based on organisational structure or subject. Functions and activities provide a more stable framework for classification than organisational structures that are often subject to change through amalgamation, devolution and decentralisation. The structure of an organisation may change many times, but the functions an organisation carries out usually remain much the same over time.”

I would also strongly resist the temptation to build your classification structure on content; it is way too difficult. Instead, as I have said above, base it on your common business processes.

When I say classification structure I mean the way you name and organize folders in your shared drives. I can’t give you a generic solution because I am not that clever; I don’t know enough about your business. I can however, give you an example.

Please also remember that for the most part, we are dealing with unstructured source information; Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Emails, etc. Emails are a little easier to deal with because they have a limited but common structure, e.g., Date Received, Sender, Recipient, CC and Subject. With other electronic documents we are have far less information and are  usually limited to Author (not reliable), Date Created, Date Modified and Filename. Ergo, as I said earlier, trying to base a classification system on the content of unstructured documents is both difficult and inexact. It is certainly doable but you will have to spend a lot more money on consulting and sophisticated software to achieve your ends.

In my simple example of my simple system I am going to assume that your business is customer (or client) centric, i.e., as opposed to being case-centric or project-centric, etc. The top level of your classification structure therefore will be the client name and/or number. To make it as simple as possible I am going to propose only two levels. The second level represents your most common business processes, that is, what you do with each customer. So for example, I have:

Customer Name



     Quotes & Proposals.



I am also not going to differentiate between emails and other types of electronic documents, I am going to treat them all the same.

Now how does this simple system work?

  1. Staff producing electronic documents don’t have their ‘own’ shared drive, all staff use the common classification structure. This is very important, let one or more people be exceptions and you no longer have a system you can rely on to meet your needs for reliable retrieval and any compliance legislation you are subject to.
  2. Staff drag and drop or ‘save-as’ emails from their email client to the correct sub-folder.
  3. Similarly, staff save (or drag and drop) electronic documents into the correct sub-folder. You can control access if required by applying security to electronic documents.
  4. You purchase or build a document repository (based on any common database such as SQL Server, MySQL, etc.) and within this repository you replicate the folder structure of your shared drives with logical folders and subfolders.
  5. You purchase or build a tool that constantly monitors the shared drives (e.g., using .NET Watcher technology) and that instantly captures a copy of any new or modified document (you do need to configure your repository to automatically version modified documents). You may also decide to automatically delete the original source document after it has been captured.
  6. You build or purchase a records and document management software package that allows you to index, search and report on all the information in your repository.
  7. You train your staff in how to save and search for information (shouldn’t take more than a half to one day) and then you go live.

I would also recommend applying a retention schedule based on sub folder (e.g., contracts) and date created and have the records management system automatically apply it to manage the lifecycle of captured documents. There is no sense in retaining information longer than you have to; it is also a dangerous practice.

Please note that the above is just an example and a very simple one at that. You need to determine the most appropriate folder structure for your organization.


Do not let the folder structure become overly complex and unwieldy. If you do, it won’t work and you will end up with lots of stuff either not captured or captured to the wrong place. The basic rules are that if it takes more than few second to decide where to file something then it is too complex and that any structure more than 3 levels deep is too complex.

And finally, this isn’t just a theory, it is something we do in our organization and it is something many of our customers do. If you would like to read more on this approach there are some white papers and more explanations at this link. Alternatively, you can contact us and ask questions at this link.

Good luck.


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