Answer: The longer you have been a consultant, the more serious the file management issue becomes. The thought of all your papers, files, reports, and binders stacked in teetering columns on every surface in your office gives me nightmares. Why? Because in the long run this lack of organization will cost you both time and money.
Where is that critical document you need for your current proposal? What did you do the last time you hired a research assistant? How can you develop an abstract for the upcoming conference by tomorrow? Filing is not about filing at all, it is about retrieval.
From project to project it may seem inconsequential but managing your files (both electronic and paper) is an important part way to preserve your own intellectual capital, retain your corporate memory, support good decision making, and provide an evidence trail. Think of this pedestrian task as knowledge generation, capture, retrieval and translation. Develop your own knowledge management system.
- Organize your files into some basic categories:
- Financial records
- Administrative files
- Personnel records
- Client/project files
- Process knowledge and precedents
- Determine where to store each type of information so that you can find it again.
- Store current project files on your computer and/or laptop and on a couple of flash drives.
- Keep administrative records and recent projects on your server, portable back-up drives or discs. Put them in your safety deposit box.
- Centralize paper files, keep short-term documents on site for two years, and then purge the non-essentials.
- Move essential long-term files to an off-site archive, not in your garage or attic, but in a storage locker.
- Determine how long to keep each type of file.
- Store surveys in boxes clearly marked, “Shred after….” for one year.
- Keep essential business information for seven years (financial and tax records, leases, contracts, insurance records, licenses, and personnel files).
- Client files have no real end date but I use the seven-year rule. After that, I only keep files that are interesting for articles, workshop materials, or case studies (suitably adapted of course).
- Keep an updated archive map on a spreadsheet so you know where things are.
- Reward yourself for your good business practice. You deserve it!
Originally published in the Independent Consulting TIG Newsletter, Volume 3, Issue 3. July 2012.
For more information see Chapter 17: Managing Knowledge in Barrington, G. V. (2012). Consulting Start-up & Management: A Guide for Evaluators & Applied Researchers. Los Angeles: SAGE.