Why Folders Don’t Cut It For Organizing Complex Knowledge

Madeline Jacobson Written by Madeline Jacobson

Think about the last time you tried to find a baking dish or a set of utensils in a friend’s kitchen. If you didn’t have your friend standing over your shoulder and telling you where to look, you probably had to search through a few drawers or cabinets to find what you were looking for. Everyone has their own system for organizing their kitchen, and it may not make immediate sense to their visitors.

Digital folders present the same problem. The structure of folders and subfolders on a hard drive or in a file sharing app make sense to the person who set it up, but it can turn into a confusing maze of information for everyone else.

When you need to organize and share a large volume of complex information, folders fall short. Let’s look at some of the limitations of the traditional folder structure when it comes to knowledge sharing— and what you can do instead.

Folders Require That You Understand Their Underlying Logic

The naming conventions and structure one person uses for their folders and files might make total sense to them but be baffling to a co-worker who needs to search through that information.

Many digital content storage spaces, such as Google Drive, are getting better about letting users search for keywords within documents as well as in the title and folder names, but it can still be challenging to find what you need if you don’t know the exact language used in the document. And some traditional file sharing apps and wikis still require you to search by keywords in the name of the file or folder. That means you’re out of luck if you don’t know the file names a co-worker has used or the underlying logic of the folder structure they’ve created.

Some companies try to circumvent this problem by having set naming conventions for different types of files and folders, but it’s hard to get everyone to stick to the script, especially in a large organization. If your knowledge management system depends on users searching by files or folder names, important content will fall through the cracks.

It Can Be Difficult to Navigate Folders

A 2012 IDC survey found that knowledge workers spend an average of 4.5 hours per week looking for documents— and half that time, they don’t find the document they need. This statistic probably won’t come as a shock to anyone who has ever wasted time navigating their company’s maze of shared folders.

When first creating a folder structure, individuals and organizations typically start with broad categories and then gradually get more granular with multiple levels of subfolders. For example, consider this path that a marketer might have to take to find a case study about a luxury home goods client:

Marketing→ Sales Collateral → Case Studies → Retail → 2018

Not only does it take time to navigate through each of these layers, but it’s also easy to take a wrong turn. Backtracking and searching through different folders wastes more time and leads to increasing frustration with the knowledge management system.

There’s another long-term problem with burying content in subfolders: it’s easy for the original authors to forget about it. This puts the content at risk of becoming outdated, and of getting picked up and used out of context by another employee who has stumbled across it.

There’s a Risk of File Duplication Issues

When you use a folder structure for your shared company knowledge, there’s no single source of truth. You can deposit multiple copies of the same file into different locations, and it’s not always obvious to other users that there’s more than one copy floating around. Different people may be unknowingly modifying different copies of a document. This can lead to inconsistencies in information and cause employees to waste time duplicating work that someone else has already done.

Complex Info Doesn’t Fit Neatly Into a Folder

Although a folder structure theoretically offers a tidy way to categorize content, it doesn’t always capture the nuances of complex information. You may want to have a piece of content exist across multiple categories without creating copies. You may want other users to be able to find your content even if they’re only searching for related terms, not exact keywords that are in the title.

You may also want your co-workers to understand some of the context around a piece of content before clicking into it—which can be difficult when you’re boiling the content down to a folder and file name. In a guest post for our blog, consumer insights professional Diana Powell described what a big difference it made for her just to go from searching for information by file name to searching by thumbnails:

“Suddenly I recognized title slides and graphics and didn’t have to keep opening and closing my files to find what I was looking for. While thumbnails that were our generic company template weren’t that helpful, interesting vendor presentations and visual reports gave me an immediate reaction.”

Ideally, organizations should give their employees multiple ways to discover information, whether that’s by searching for terms used in a document, looking through visuals, browsing by category or tag, or even looking at related and recommended content surfaced by an artificial intelligence engine.

When companies rely heavily on a folder structure, the paths to discovering information are restricted, and employees may have trouble locating the knowledge they need to do their jobs efficiently.

What To Do Instead of Relying on Folders

If your company depends on being able to share information internally (and what company doesn’t?), a modern knowledge sharing platform can help you keep complex information organized and searchable. Here are a few features to look for in a knowledge sharing platform:

  • Robust search. Look for a platform that deep indexes all content within every file type and whose search functionality goes beyond exact match keywords.
  • Multiple ways to categorize content (without duplicating it). To give users multiple ways to discover content, you’ll want to choose a platform that lets users classify and search for content in different ways (by keywords, filters, tags, and so on). Ideally, the platform should let you classify the same piece of content in multiple ways so that you don’t have to create copies of it.
  • Version control and duplicate detection. Version control lets you review all previous versions of a piece of content so that you can see what changes have been made, and duplicate detection alerts you if the same file is uploaded to multiple posts in your knowledge sharing platform.
  • Ability to surface time-sensitive posts. If you have content that will “expire” (i.e. become outdated) at a certain point, you don’t want it to get lost in your database. Look for a knowledge sharing platform that will let you set reminders to update or archive time-sensitive content.
  • Context in previews of content. Look for a platform that gives users more than a file name to help them decide if they want to view a full piece of content. Ideally, users should be able to see a title, short description (if one is available), author, and a thumbnail image to help them determine if they’ve found what they’re looking for.

The best way to get employees to share knowledge—and to use the knowledge of their co-workers—is to make it as easy as possible. Creating a flexible system for organizing information, rather than relying on a rigid folder structure, will help team members access knowledge in the moment they need it.

Harness The Power Of Knowledge Sharing With Digital Transformation

Companies that grasp what the digital workplace is really all about are willing to change the ways people and applications connect across their organizations. By fostering a digitally driven culture of collaboration, they break down silos, share knowledge more effectively, and compete more successfully.

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