Ask Unclutterer: Organizing a shared drive

Reader Nick submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I’m curious what strategies you’ve come across to declutter a group drive, such as in the workplace? Do folks structure their group files by situation, by file type, by projects, or by user? Something else entirely?

The necessary, but always disorganized, shared network drive is unfortunately a staple in many offices. It exists so that there will be a nightly backup of company data and for employees to easily share their information with each other, but that is often where the benefits end. Unless your company has a mandated filing system, people will save data to the shared drive any way they please.

My first piece of advice is to never store files by user name. People resign, get fired, and are promoted too quickly for it to be a valuable structuring method. The same is true for storing data by specific job titles — the Vice President of Marketing might become the Vice President of Corporate Outreach without any change in duties, offices, or staffing.

My advice is to organize by the kind of work your business or organization completes. If you’re at a business with a handful of clients, have folders based on client name and subdivided into projects. If you’re at a business that creates products, have folders based on the product and subdivided into projects relating to those products. If you are a non-profit or a service-based organization, you can probably get by on simply organizing by projects.

A standardized file naming structure can also help: YearMonthDay_project_document.extension or 20090508_Ask_Drives.txt

A naming structure such as this allows you to identify when the file was created (May 8, 2009), what project it relates to (Ask, for Ask Unclutterer), and its topic (Drives).

Honestly, though, what matters most is the search program you have associated with the drive. If you can access the drive with Google Desktop or Copernic Desktop, you should be able to find whatever file you need with these powerful search engines. They are your salvation when the filing system is so far gone that you can barely find the files you added to the drive.

What advice do others who work on shared drives have for Nick? Please let us know your ideas in the comments.

And, thank you, Nick, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

17 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Organizing a shared drive”

  1. posted by AndrewL on

    Have you ever run into the issue with shared network drives where someone inadvertently drags a whole project folder into another, and suddenly, the whole folder disappears and panic ensues until someone searches the whole drive and realizes the mistake?

    Luckily every modern file system (NTFS, Mac Journaled, etc) has permissions feature and they should be used judiciously. users in the “marketing group” shouldn’t have access to the “engineering group” or “financial group” and vice versa, people from different groups should communicate with users in those groups for the information they need, this way everyone knows what information everyone is using.

    better still would be to implement some kind of version control system, even though version control systems were originally designed to organize software development. A centralized version control system like Subversion can be used to keep track of all the files on the drive, who accessed it, and each file’s complete history. it will work with any type of file, and has the added benefit of being entirely OS independent, as it operates on the TCP/IP protocol. using Subversion you can have a shared drive which any OS can access. the workflow is a little different than simple drag and drop, but easy-to-use tools have been developed to make the process just as easy.

  2. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    I organize all my files in this way although in some folders I name files with the date first in other folders I put the topic first then date.
    Folder=Newsletter, files are named by date first
    Folder=Board Mtg 200905, files are named topic first

    I got lots of good information for document management at

  3. posted by Erin Doland on

    I completely agree with AndrewL’s advice on version control. We LOVE Subversion here at Unclutterer.

  4. posted by Rob on

    Give everything a job number. Internal or external project? Job number. A client’s 9467th project? Job number. Company stationery redesign? Job number.

    Folders named with job numbers (which can be customized however you want – client name, start date, etc.) and a shared Google spreadsheet would solve 95% of everyone’s problems.

    I freelance and work in all kinds of environments. There are tons of fancy solutions out there, but simpler is always better.

  5. posted by Angie on

    Another system that is great is called the Jeter System, I believe. It was invented at a time when companies like medical insurance had branches across the country and needed to find records quickly via the phone or fax, and still maintain privacy.

    Here’s how it works.

    The main folders are 100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, 700, 800, 900. You could give them names 100 = Computer, 200 = Finance, 300 = Research, etc. Whatever. Whatever your needs are.

    Within each folder, there are other folders. I will use folder 800 as an example:

    810, 820, 830, 840, 850, 860, 870, 880, 890.

    So let’s say that Folder 800 = Publishing. Folder 810 could be Vendors (I’m making this up on the fly, so lousy examples, forgive me)

    810 Vendors
    820 Suppliers
    830 Clients
    840 Authors
    850 Conferences
    860 Digital
    870 Software
    880 Paper Manufacturers
    890 Press

    Within each folder, you can break it down some more. Say for Folder 810, you could have 811, 812, 813, 814, 815, 816, 817, 818, 819.

    You get the picture. This system expands to meet the needs of the largest company in the country, yet can be used by a one-person shop depending on how deep you want to go.

    Now….HOW TO USE IT.

    Using Folder 850 as an example. You have a file that contains your registration for an Adobe conference in September 2009, and you filled it out today, May 8, 2009. Here is how you would name your file.

    20090508850 Adobe Whatsis Conference 9_2009


    20090508850 Adobe Conference Change 9_2009 ver 1

    You have the date properly formatted up front for easy indexing, and the last three digits of the date — here it’s 850 — are the folder number, according to YOUR system. You can use this system digitally as well as on paper folders in your drawer without any duplication of effort and you maintain business privacy.

    If you are a small two-five person shop, your folder numbers would be well known to your team: 850, 110, 446, whatever. You can name your files this way and no one would be able to tell the contents from seeing it on a desk except those who have a need to know.

    In the case of the medical insurance company mentioned above, they used it this way in an end-tab system:


    2007 was the date the patient first saw the doctor
    12 was the month
    30 was the day
    R was the first initial in the patient’s last name
    323 were the last three digits of the patient’s social security number.

    The only important part of this file name is R323. Armed with this they were able to locate the Rs in 50,000,000 files, and then locate the patient by social security number. The likelihood of a patient whose last name begins with R and whose last three digits in his SSN are 323 are a billion to one.

    They were able to locate files with this system nationwide within two minutes, and maintain privacy.

  6. posted by Angie on

    Oh yeah, one more thing, you would do searches this way:

    ********850 to find all your 850 files. You can find them EVEN IF YOU MISFILE.

    The * break down this way:


  7. posted by Suzyn on

    Whatever system you use, it is worth being fanatical about it. I worked in a technical writing group on Wall Street for many years. Believe me, when an investment banker wants a change to a document in 20 mins, and everyone who was involved in creating it is either on vacation or in a new job, being able to find the files, understand the sub-folder structure, make the changes, and publish is KEY.

    Having everything indexed in a spreadsheet is nice, but someone has to be fanatical about updating the spreadsheet, too. It’s extra work, and if it doesn’t get done, the spreadsheet is worthless. Better to have a system that everyone understands and follows.

  8. posted by John @ Hard Work Blogging on

    As most offices run on Microsoft software SharePoint Server might be a good solution in place of shared folders. This allows the IT Department to maintain control (great if you are on the IT end) and allows users to share and collaborate on projects. There are other features but this is the basic one and the one i have experience with.

    Also with the folders for different groups and permissions set; mapping the drive to the folder they have access to reduces clutter. Also when people leave a job IT should clean their network space not just their computer.

  9. posted by Julia on

    The biggest problem we have in my department is the clutter created by out-of-date, obsolete files and folders. There are things that clearly are no longer needed, but no one wants to be the one who trashed something that someone else might want later.

    Any suggestions?

  10. posted by Gillian on

    I have always tried to organize on the computer. I worked in an office where everything was under the name of the person doing it, and it drove me nuts because I knew exactly that it was not the right solution. [I’m no longer there, yeah!]
    My own stuff is set up in a new folder each year. The sub folders are mine, DH’s, household, finance, files, business and a few others. There’s one folder in there which is always carried forward, and some I will go back and search for, to move each year. There is a great deal which doesn’t have to come forward, and it’s a good way to leave them behind, but accessible. I’ve been doing it for at least 15 years.

  11. posted by Thom on

    My 60-person company has top level folders for each operational area, and each area is responsible for organisation and maintenance of its own files within that folder. There’s some application of workgroup permissions and so on to ensure that key files aren’t accidentally removed, deleted, modified.

    While there are obviously differences in system between the areas, this practice does work better for us than some arbitrary system imposed from on high. That’s because each area can adopt a system that works best for the nature of its work and workers (and their levels of fanaticism) and because there is ownership of the system as well as personal motivation to maintain it.

    If I have a gripe re my workplace’s filing practices it would be that not everyone understands/appreciates the importance of using a reverse date system (y/m/d) in file names to ensure logical sorting. So we do get a bit of d/m/y in some parts of the system (this is in Australia where d/m/y is the standard sequence for dates).

    Julia’s question is a really important one. In my own work area, for example, I *frequently* need refer to or reuse work and files from previous years, and as I work there longer so will the number of years I’m referring to increase. To a lesser extent, colleagues would refer to my older files too. So for me the “archives” are actually working reference files and need to stay available. But there would be other work files that can quite easily be archived to DVD or some other medium.

    Perhaps one solution for the intrepid deleter of old files would be to archive everything to another medium, but to leave in the original location a spreadsheet indexing what was archived. Not dissimilar to the spreadsheet that you’d create to itemise what was in the boxes of physical files that have been sent to a storage unit or paper archive.

  12. posted by catherine on

    I’ve worked in numerous large govt depts and if there is a standard it’s usually the reverse date naming convention, along with a suffix of 0.1 (for drafts) and whole number upgrades for major versions sent for review (e.g. “20090504 Business Case v2.0.doc”.). Save ‘Final’ for the one signed off, approved version.

    Re naming folders, create a structure then mentally try to file everything in one of the folders. If there is any confusion, try another structure; repeat until it works. Fewer folders the better. And don’t use the organisation’s business structure as a filing structure, it rarely works.

    The other thing I do is keep a folder labeled zArchive (to sort it to the bottom of the list). Every ‘old’ version gets thrown in here, so folders only contain the latest versions, but the old ones are available if I really need them. Never, ever do the reverse of this i.e. create a “Latest version” folder – it will end up like the moving box a friend found labelled “urgent – do immediately – April 2003”!

    My final suggestion would be to browse for blogs or websites on records management and look for help there. They are the professionals.

  13. posted by l.k. on

    Unless there’s an alternate reason that I’ve missed, there’s no need to put the create date in the file name. The filesystem itself records this information as an attribute that you can easily sort by. Making use of that feature leaves a more uncluttered filename.

  14. posted by Thom on

    @l.k.: Create dates aren’t visible in all views, so having the create date in the file name is handy.

    But more to the point, the date in the file name isn’t necessarily a create date. It might a publication/issue date, a revision date, or some other key date that isn’t reflected in the file’s properties.

    Sometimes, too, it’s the only thing that’s distinctive about the file name, e.g. Newsletter_090105; Newsletter_090204; Newsletter_090304; etc. and so the date is necessary, given that identical file names within a folder aren’t permitted (or useful).

  15. posted by Katie Alender on

    My rule for file organization is that a person who has never been on the server before should be able to find what they need, given the available choices. So we start with the basic: one folder for current year, one folder for past years. In the current year are each of the project names. In each of the project names are subfolders–which are basically the same for each project, especially the essentials. Inside the subfolders, there are folders for each element.

    Inside each element folder, you will typically see only two things–the latest version of a file (or if it’s a multi-document item, a LATEST folder), and a folder called “OLD/OTHER/BACKUP.” Occasionally, there will be a NOTES or WORK folder as well. If a document is moved to a new version, the other version is moved to the OLD folder and the new version resides as the latest.

    I frequently work from home, in which case I change the name of the LATEST folder to LATEST HOME WITH KATIE, so people know not to make changes in those items. When I work from home, I keep my files in my Dropbox, so that if they desperately need to access them from the office, they can.

    When a year is complete, the entire year folder is dragged to the “PAST YEARS” folder, and the substructure exists as it always has.

    “By name” folders are kept under “STAFF FILES” on the server and are typically only used for items that don’t fit anywhere else and wouldn’t mean anything to other employees.

    Documents that go from project to project are kept in master folders outside of the yearly folder system. For example, I keep data and merge shells, as well as document templates and automator workflows, in a folder called MASTER SCRIPT ELEMENTS.

    I suppose a lot depends on what type of work you do. Our projects are very modular, so it’s easy to keep them organized, and we impress on everyone who comes into contact with our server that we expect the structure to be maintained.

    But I do believe that almost anything can be organized well if you take it from the perspective that a stranger should be able to log in and find a specific item by making choices from among the available folders at each level.

    Good luck!

  16. posted by Jess on

    I did this exact thing for the last company I worked for. When it was agreed they did not require a controlled system, I looked at their existing files and usage. I think we ended up with

    – Projects (and subfolders by project code – archive might have been here too)
    – Teams (subfolders by team name)
    – Exchange (each person had their own folder to do quicky stuff)
    – Fun
    – (memory is failing at this point)

    I also created a file naming convention, and docs and training for all staff in the usage of the new system.

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