Information is a vital asset to any organization, and its ability to be managed effectively can make or break the success of that organization. However, information on its own is mostly useless until it’s organized.
Organizing and indexing files allows you to more easily find what you’re looking for and summarize a data set for better-informed decision-making. Conversely, having a dataset with all the information you could ever need hiding away in an unstructured collection is almost useless, as you’d need to search through everything to find it.
In this blog post, we’ll explain the basics of indexing, its benefits, and why digital files are easier to organize.
Organizing & Indexing
While this may sound straightforward, it can be very difficult to organize a collection of information well, as there are many different ways it could be organized, some of which are better than others.
Example: Transaction Reports
Imagine an archive of transaction reports (receipts or invoices): you could organize them based on the transaction date, the recipient or sender (transaction partner), the products or services sold, the dollar value of the transaction, or any other number of characteristics.
Once they’ve been sorted into categories based on this initial characteristic, however, they’ll still be disorganized within each of these new categories. To add another layer of organization, you need to sort them based on another feature within each of these categories. For example, once you’ve arranged the transactions by type (receipt or invoice), you could arrange them by date within those categories.
These different levels of organization by feature or categories are different indexing levels.
A hierarchy of indexing levels is an indexing schema. For example, when sorting things by name in alphabetical order, your first indexing level is the first letter in the name, so that everything that starts with an “A” comes before everything that starts with a “B,” and so on. When two names both start with “A,” you sort them based on the next indexing level, the second letter, so that “Abe” comes before “Ace,” but both still come before “Bart.”
Finding the best way to organize your files is essentially developing the best indexing schema for your operation.
But how do you determine the usefulness of an indexing level, or, for that matter, of an indexing schema?
Useful Indexing Levels
Any consistent feature with differences within the dataset can be used as an indexing level. The usefulness of an indexing level comes from how broad a distinction it draws and how relevant or useful that distinction is to your organization.
Ex: Distinction without a difference
In our example of a dataset of transaction reports, if they’re all written in English or all using the Canadian dollar, then “language” and “currency type” would not be helpful indexing levels because they wouldn’t sort any files apart from any others. Because these categories don’t represent any differences within the dataset, they have no value.
Similarly, imagine if we one day added one invoice to this collection that happened to be written in French. While “language” might become a useful indexing level for locating that specific file, it still would not be that helpful for the rest of the database.
Ex: Meaningless distinctions
Another category we could use to sort the transaction reports might be the first letter of the first name of the employee who completed the transaction. This would separate our files into 26 different categories, but this difference would be useless because knowing what letter the employee’s first name begins with is completely irrelevant to processing transactions.
These examples are not likely to happen very often in real life, but they show what makes an indexing level useful. The dollar amount, date, and vendor would all be more useful and sensible indexing levels.
Building a useful indexing schema
Once you’ve decided on some useful indexing levels to use in sorting your data, you need to rank them based on priority. Your goal is to make the most useful indexing level the first and the least useful the last.
However, it can be difficult to decide which indexing levels are more useful than the others, as “usefulness” is an unquantifiable, abstract concept. This is why experimenting with different schemas is important, as changing from one to the other lets you see their overall usefulness in practice.
What your specific “best” indexing schema looks like will be unique to your organization’s business model, decision-making practices, and circumstances.
For example, if companies are looking at an advertising database, trying to find the right people to advertise to, they’ll want to advertise to people who have some characteristics relevant to their business offering. “Owns or manages property” is a much more important indexing level to a property maintenance company than to a hair salon. “Income level” would be a somewhat important sorting level for most businesses, but it would be extremely important to a company selling luxury goods.
In general, though, you should try to create a schema that will enable the most efficient file search process.
Indexing in Practice
When creating an indexing schema for a large collection of paper files, the different levels of your schema will determine what goes where. Often times specific indexing levels will be represented by actual physical locations, like when the contents of a filing cabinet or a specific drawer are all one type of file. The iconic cardstock filing folders are another physical representation of an indexing level, each folder a category within it.
The difficulty with physical files is that the “ideal” indexing schema shifts over time with the changing economy and your changing circumstances. By the time you’ve implemented a specific schema, you’re more or less locked into it. Switching to another way of organizing things can mean rearranging hundreds or even thousands of files, which could take days.
Even then, whenever someone needs to locate a file based on a characteristic that isn’t considered in the current schema or isn’t important in it, they’ll need to resort to checking through many files until they find it.
Furthermore, physical implementations of indexing schemas can only go so deep. The more files you have, the more indexing levels you’ll need and the more space they take. Adding new indexing levels means buying more organizing tools like folders and filing cabinets.
Dynamic Digital Indexing
Whereas physical file storage locks you into a specific indexing schema with limited complexity, digital files let you flexibly adjust your schema as you need and allow for practically infinite complexity.
When trying to locate a specific file in physical storage, you’ll need to know where it fits into the entire schema and go through each step to get to it. With digital files, however, you can filter content by the specific feature that matters to you, narrowing the field of search down to the most relevant indexing level immediately without having to go through all the ones that precede it.
A physical indexing system acts as a roadmap that tells you where you need to go to find the file you’re looking for; a good road map will get you there as fast as possible, with the fewest number of steps. But even the best roadmap can’t compare with being able to search for a file name or filter by features, both of which bring the file to you almost instantly.
Digital storage also lets you create as many folders and subfolders as you need, nesting smaller and more specific groupings within larger, broader categories with ease. Don’t like the current arrangement? Creating new folders and moving them around takes almost no time at all, making the switch from one schema to another far less troublesome.
All of these advantages make digital storage far more accessible and useful than physical file storage. On top of that, it’s also cheaper in terms of ongoing costs and adding new files.
Upgrade your information storage by going digital! Consentia has been helping organizations in Alberta and western Canada transform their information systems for decades. We always tailor our solutions to your specific needs, and we provide full consultation and transparency throughout the planning and execution of any project.
Take the first step in enhancing your information system today by getting in touch with our digitization experts. Find out how we can bring your information management to the next level.