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File Indexing

File Indexing

Hey there! I am Barbara Hemphill, and I want to share a behind-the-scenes look at how the concept of the File Index evolved into a revolutionary solution for managing information. 

In 1978, when I first began organizing filing systems in homes, I quickly learned that one of the significant challenges was sharing a filing system.  My first solution was to organize the files alphabetically.  In addition, I put the plastic tabs on the front of the files, which made them more visible regardless of how thick the file was (and made it easier to add new papers to the file since all you had to do was grab the plastic file tab and pull to create a space in the front of the file to put the new paper.)  In addition, I could stagger the file tabs so that you could see all of them.  But if the client had more than one file drawer, there was still a big problem!  The creator of the file could name a file “car,” while the person looking for the file might look for “Honda,” “auto,” or “vehicle.”  My solution was simple — a yellow legal pad.  I simply wrote the names of the files on the pad (leaving space between each name in case more needed to be added) and put it in or near the file cabinet.  When someone wanted to find a file or add a new one, they could quickly check the list to find what already existed.  I called it a File Index.   I discovered that a File Index is to a filing system what a Chart of Accounts is to accounting.  Without a Chart of Accounts, it is impossible to manage your finances.  Without a File Index, it is impossible to manage your information! 

Soon it became apparent that handwriting a File Index was not a professional solution, so I started using a Microsoft Word document.  The added advantage was that you could use the “search” feature in Word to find the file you were looking for. 

In 1992 I accepted a consulting assignment with the American Association of Universities in Washington, DC.  My challenge was to organize files in several different drawers and rooms so that all of the staff members could share the information.  The first challenge was to get the staff to agree on how the information should be filed – what information needed to be kept at all, what information belonged in what room, in what drawer, how the papers should be sorted, and how the files should be named.  This involved hours of discussion over several weeks.  Each group of file drawers had a File Index – e.g., the file drawer in the Executive Director’s office, the file drawer in the Administrative Assistant’s office, the four-drawer file cabinet in the hall outside the lunch room, the four four-drawer file cabinets in the storage room, etc.

As we continued to work on the project, the knot in my stomach increased as I realized that, despite all my efforts, no one would be able to remember over the long term how the information was filed, and when new people came into the association, finding the information they needed would still be an enormous challenge since they wouldn’t even know which file cabinet to start looking in!

My next approach was to create an Information Resource Directory – a 3-ring notebook.  In the front was a floor plan of the office, with a schematic drawing of all the file cabinets and desks with file drawers.  Each group of file cabinets had a number, and each File Index was numbered accordingly.  It looked very impressive!  But frankly, when I walked out the door, I knew that if the Administrative Assistant (who was invested in the project) left and the person who replaced her didn’t have the same enthusiasm, all of our efforts would be lost.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know another alternative.

 A few years later, I accepted a similar consulting assignment with one of the divisions of AARP. I proceeded much the same as with AAU, but with one major change.  We used a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet instead of using Microsoft Word to create the File Index. This made it easier to manipulate the data, but it was still not a very satisfactory solution because many people were not skilled in Excel.  Unfortunately, I still didn’t know a better alternative. 

 In 1995, I was approached by an entrepreneur in Atlanta, GA who had read my book Taming the Paper Tiger and said, “We can turn your concepts into a software program.  Are you interested?”  I had NO idea what he meant, but I’m always up for an adventure, so I said, “Sure!” Forty-eight hours later, he was in my office.  Frankly, it took four hours of his explaining until the light bulb came on, but when it did, I was thrilled.  The concept was very simple.  Think of a file cabinet as a “warehouse for paper.”  A hanging file in the file cabinet is a “container in the warehouse.”  The containers are numbered consecutively based on the contents of the files.  For example, Personnel Files could be Personnel 1, Personnel 2, Personnel 3, etc., while Administrative Files could be Admin 1, Admin 2, Admin 3, Admin 4. etc. and Archived Files could be Archive 1, Archive 2, Archive 3, etc.  In 1997, Kiplinger’s Taming the Paper Tiger software was born. A database that allowed the user to do a simple keyword search to find any file in the office in five seconds.

Through the years, Paper Tiger enthusiasts kept asking us how they could have the same capability with their electronic files and if it was possible to create a solution that they could access online.  In 2008, Andrea Anderson, Executive Director of the Paper Tiger Productivity Institute (now Productive Environment Institute), purchased a new computer incompatible with Paper Tiger software.  In desperation, she decided to export the information from Paper Tiger into a program called PB Wiki (now PBWorks).  As she worked with the program, she discovered that not only could she find her physical files, but she could add to the program her electronic files, including scanned documents, PowerPoint presentations, Excel spreadsheets, e-mails, and attachments. She could even create a grocery list she could share collaboratively with her husband and access electronically from her iPhone at the grocery store! 

We began testing it among our consultants with outstanding results, and in 2009, the Productive Environment Institute collaborated with PBWorks to launch an ‘interactive Productive Environment Platform’ (iPEP).  iPEP solves all the problems of finding and sharing information regardless of the format. Since iPEP is an online solution, there were no compatibility issues–even Mac users could use iPEP!

In 2011, we recognized that many individuals and organizations would benefit from the capability of using electronic search capability to find paper files, but for whom iPEP was not appropriate and/or affordable.  So we created an Excel template, thus proving once again that  “Everything old is new again!” 

By 2015, various tools were available to create a file index for a numerical filing system.  Each has its pros and cons — or as one of our favorite Productive Environment principles puts it:  “You can have anything you want, but not everything!” Our favorites include smartphone apps that allow you to have someone else access a document regardless of where you are.  We work with clients to identify whether a program they already use can be implemented or whether another tool would suit their needs and preferences more effectively.

Interested in bringing this innovation to your organization? Fill out my speaker request form, and let’s take the journey of efficient information management together!

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File Indexing

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Hey there! I am Barbara Hemphill, and I want to share a behind-the-scenes look at how the concept of the File Index evolved into a

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