Windows as a Document Manager

Author’s Notes:

This paper was the basis for a presentation at the 2005 AIIM Conference. A pdf version is available below as well as the original powerpoint deck.

For Linux and Apple users out their, my apologies for a ‘Microsoft-centric’ view of the world. Hopefully you can also use some of the thoughts and suggestions in this article.  For those Windows historians, Longhorn is mentioned in the article which became Windows Vista.

I have used the principles of this original article in a few different organizations and circumstances and generally they have been well adopted.  Perhaps, before my working career is over, the network fileshare will disappear – we’ll see.

Original Presentation Deck
Word version of the presentation notes.


Network file shares or servers are a common method for storing digital documents in healthcare organizations. Many directories on file shares have evolved organically or have been tailored to the specific interest of those creating them. This article discusses different dimensions to consider when creating directories; how to design directory structures with user system access in mind; provides tips for system security, data management and user access, particularly when considering privacy and right of access legislation. Directory design is highlighted through a case study. Sidebars discusses the proposed changes to Microsoft Windows file system and alternatives for storing digital documents.

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Document Management – A Common Problem

A common problem for healthcare finance departments is how to structure and store their electronic documents. Some organizations use a groupware tool, such as those listed in the side bar. More than likely, Finance has a file server on a network using a Windows operating system organized into directories.
Without an over-arching plan, directories will tend to either grow organically or individuals will create their own ‘narcissistic’ structures. Developing ‘business focused’ directories can help healthcare finance departments manage and leverage their electronic assets. Not every file is important, but a business-focused structure saves money, eliminates the demoralizing need to recreate missing files and helps to reduce organizational risk. There is no time like the present to reorganize those directories left behind by long-departed employees into an effective document management tool.

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What is a Directory Anyway?

The familiar Windows Explorer and file structure can trace its roots to the 1970’s and UNIX’s ‘hierarchical architecture’. It starts at a root with branching sub-directories and then further sub-directories seemingly ad nauseum* – with similar (or the even the same) files becoming increasingly isolated from each other.
A file server (or file share) is a device that other computers can use, access or retrieve files from. Most larger organization have a secure ‘server farm’ to house their hardware with users mapping to a particular file share and assigning it a drive letter.
In the early 1980’s, Microsoft developed its MS-DOS operating system that also used a ‘UNIX-like’ hierarchical structure (and a highly restrictive “8.3” file naming convention). While MS-DOS has evolved into the various incarnations of Windows, the prime deficiency of this 25+ year-old technology remains– it assumes a linear, deductive hierarchical organization for documents on file servers.

* Actually not quite ad nauseum, there is a total length maximum of characters in a directory string.  Thus, the shorter the directory names, the more nested directories you can have; the longer the names, the less depth.

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7 Steps to a Healthy Directory Structure

Microsoft is proposing sweeping changes in how files are stored within its operating system including a powerful search engine (see side bar). In the meantime, we are stuck with the UNIX and MS-DOS legacy; here are 7 steps to make the best of it:
1. Security of digital assets
2. Defining the directory audience and their psychology
3. Create structures and right of access
4. Develop naming conventions
5. Leverage Document Management
6. Educate the end user – document the results
7. Letting go

1. Security of digital assets

Proper firewalls, a robust administrator policy, a trustworthy staff to enforce the policy and adequate backups are all part of digit asset protection. Outsource these functions if your organization does not have the expertise. Strongly discourage the saving of files to local disk drives. Local drives crash, are eventually sold or may be stolen.

2. Defining the directory audience and their psychology

Whether just yourself or numbering in the hundreds, identify the audience for a directory structure. In particular, what structure makes the most sense to them when they go and look for a file? Consider running focus groups and ‘straw man models’ in conjunction with step 4 (Creation of Structures).

3. Create Structures and Right of Access

This step focuses on what are the directory structures, who gets to go where and what can they do when the get there? A business focused directory structure is based on the principle of dimensions. Discussed in greater detail in the next section, the 5 core dimensions are Time, Audience/Access, Subject, External Reference or Ownership.
Security rules controls access to the directories. The best rules are applied as close to the root as possible and have the fewest exceptions. Three typical types of users set up by system administrators are:
1. READ ONLY: open a file and read it but can not over-write the original file
2. READ/WRITE: create files or folders, and change existing change files
3. LOCAL ADMINISTRATOR: add or take away access rights for a sub-set of directories under their control
The above permissions can be changed. For example you may want to have a month end directory start out with read/write access. Once the month is closed, access is changed to ‘read only’ to prevent further changes.

4. Develop Naming Conventions

Naming conventions make scanning directories effortless and finding files easier through the consistent presentation of information. A good naming convention is intuitive and is readily adopted. Appendix II provides some examples.

5. Leverage Document Management

Make your electronic assets work as hard as possible for you. For example, consider setting up your hardcopy files to parallel your electronic ones, creating inherent redundancy. In my department, I use Microsoft Outlook to manage ad hoc projects. By using the same naming convention between my groupware, file server and hardcopies, my team has a three-way cross-reference.

6. Educate the end user – document the results

Hopefully the above steps have made the directories intuitive enough that users can quickly find their critical documents. A one or two-page overview of the structure and naming conventions will provide a handy memory jog and reduce the tendency to return to a narcissistic structure.

7. Letting Go

Not every electronic asset is worth keeping and eventually a directory pruning is in order. Ideally you should be able to move an entire, no longer referenced, directory (with associate sub-directories and files) off to backup tape or CD. If you need to do a detailed file-by-file review, your directory structure needs more work.

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The Information Life Cycle

The Information Life Cycle describes the continuous process of creating, organizing, storing, using and eventually culling information. Revisit the above electronic file review as part of your Finance department’s annual banker box pilgrimage to the document dungeon in the basement.

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Directory Structure Dimensions

There are 5 potential dimensions that can be applied to a Finance file server.

Table 1: Directory Dimensions




Time Temporal attribute
  • To what time period does it refer (fiscal,   calendar, etc.)
  • Creation or revision date
Audience & Access Who created, who can access
  • Where will the audience ‘look’ versus where to   save the file
  • User access and rights (Read, Write, Delete,   etc.)
  • How will the audience & access change over   time
Subject What business or economic event does the   document pertain to
  • Largest dimension, most documents are   transactional in nature.
  • The subject dimension is typically modified by   one of the other dimensions such as “Month End Reports – JUN-2010” or   “Costing Request – VP Nursing”.
External Reference An identifier maintained by an external   system and used to cross reference one or more directories to the system
  • System examples include the ERP systems,   groupware applications or external party reference number.
  • I.e.: Job number, contract reference, cost   centre code, journal entry number
Ownership To whom does the file belong
  • Who has created or can change or delete the   file
  • Who decides when the file is purged/archived
  • Ownership should not be a the basis of   directory design, but it must be taken into account to support eventual   archiving and questions of right of deletion

Ownership can be a powerful method of structure organization if it is not used at too detail of a level. For example, Finance, Payroll, Human Resources are probably valid ownership dimensions. Individuals within a department are not. Below the larger ownership organization, I have found that combinations of Subject, Time and Audience creates the most scanable and intuitive structures. The following is a suggested general directory organization for any Finance department.

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Table 2: Typical Finance Directory Organization

Level: Dimension


1: Ownership General ownership for right of access:   Accounting, Audit, Payroll, etc.
2. Time All files relating to a particular fiscal   year and a directory not having a time attribute
3. Subject with audience modifier General categorization of work, for   example for the Reporting area:

  • Reports: Board, Sr. Mgt, Departmental,   Provincial, etc.
4. Other dimensional qualifiers
  • Time: Fiscal Period, Quarter, Calendar year
  • Audience: Detailed hierarchical levels
  • External Reference: cost centre code, job   number or task identifier


Directories are seemingly trivial until files are lost or accessible to the wrong people. A little thought as to what is being stored in the directories and who might want to access it in the future can reduce organizational risk and save time and effort.

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