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19 April 2005

Everyday skills part 2: Filing and administration

By Andrew Clifford

There are few words in the English language more boring than "filing" and "administration". Tedious though they are, you need to apply these basic office skills if you want to truly master your IT.

A computer system is like a filing cabinet, accurately storing information and giving it back when asked. But you need to apply to your computer-based filing many of the same disciplines you use when filing paper-based information.

First, you have to understand what you are filing. You need to think through what you want the computer system to store, and what not to store. In a paper filing system, you would file the bank statements but throw away the advertising leaflets that come with them. How many of us apply the same discipline to our email and file storage?

Second, you need to understand how you are going to retrieve the information. Computer-based filing is different from paper filing, and you need to grasp this difference. In a paper filing system, you can only retrieve an item using the order in which it is stored. So you might file and find books by author; or invoices by date. But in a computer system, you can find books by author or by title; or invoices by date or by supplier. The downside is that you need to have the information: you need both the author and the title for the book; and both the date and the supplier for the invoice.

Third, you need to work out how to store the information most efficiently. If you only hold your customers' addresses on your orders, you would need to read through all your orders to send them details of your new products. It is more efficient to maintain customer addresses in one place, and cross refer the orders to this.

Lastly, but most importantly, you need to have the administrative discipline to keep records accurate and up-to-date. You have to check the accuracy of all data entered. When information changes, you have to update your records. You have to remove old information. This is easier with computer systems than paper-based filing, but still requires actual work.

We all aspire to be this organised with our paper filing. We don't do all of it all of the time, but we muddle through somehow. Computers can't muddle through. You have to apply all these disciplines to computer-based information, or the information in your computer will be completely worthless.

To summarise, this and the previous two newsletters have covered what you need to do to take full control and benefit from your computer systems:

  • Consider your computer systems as an extension of your own capabilities and responsibilities.
  • See computers as a mundane tool for improving efficiency.
  • Don't try to use IT to lead business and organisational change.
  • See your computer systems as fast, accurate but stupid team members that require very clear job descriptions, definitions and instructions.
  • Apply everyday disciplines of filing and administration.

We started with the out-of-this-world cyborg analogy. Paradoxically, to grasp our superhuman potential, all we need is a down-to-earth attitude and everyday common sense.

Next: People are different from computers

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