We’ve been all there: You need to find a file with critical information on it, and you have no idea where it is. You look through folder after folder. Nothing. You try a different computer. Still no luck. Where the heck is that file?
Unfortunately, if you don’t know what the name of the file is, you’ll be looking for a needle in a haystack. It’s probably named something like 2jfepzbmq238.doc. Only sheer blind luck and hours of digging through files are going to save you now.
As an organization, you don’t want that. Not only does that lead to critical files going missing, but even when your staff is successful in finding the file, cumulatively they’ve wasted hours of work time in the search. And that makes everyone less productive as a whole.
It does no good to have a document management system if you don’t also have a file management system. Here’s what you must know about file naming conventions and how to create your own.
Overview: What are file naming conventions?
A naming convention for files is a stipulation that files be named in a specific way when doing document archiving in order to keep them organized and findable in your database. A file naming convention ensures that the document is not only easy to find but that a person can also identify the contents of that file by simply reading the file name.
It also explains the relationship of different files to each other. Organizations must have a file naming system in place to avoid lost files and lower staff efficiency.
3 benefits of using file naming conventions
So why should you have a file naming convention at your business? No matter how small your company is, you probably have a lot of files to juggle. Using file naming best practices in your electronic filing system has three main benefits.
1. Simplifies management
When you have a clutter of files in a folder with no naming convention, it’s impossible to easily identify what files you need access to, resulting in the user opening a multitude of files. This is a tremendous waste of time and can be rectified with a naming convention. You may include the author’s name, the project name, the date, the version of the file, or other info in the file name depending on how you want to organize your files.
2. Easy search
Without a naming convention, the search function in your database has limited use. But if you know how files are named, you can quickly bring up the file by searching for a name, a date, or even a file type.
3. Smooth retrieval
Without a naming convention, your best bet for finding the right file is to use the computer on which the file was originally created. But by having a naming convention in place, it won’t matter whether you’re on a desktop computer, a tablet, or your smartphone — you can bring it up instantly by looking for a specific file name.
How to create a file naming convention
So what exactly is the best way to name files? It varies depending on what industry you’re in and how you want to organize your files in your records management system. In general, however, you should take the following steps when naming your files.
1. Start with the date of creation
Starting your file name with the date the file was created is an easy way to sort your files. For example, you may use "20210115" at the beginning of the file. This indicates the year (2021), month (01 or January), and the day (15th).
Then, you can simply sort by name to organize the files by the date of creation. Starting with the year is best because then you don’t have a situation where multiple files created on Jan. 15 but in different years appear at the top of your results.
2. Put in a brief project description
Another good identifier to put in the file name is the project description. For example, you could use "MarketingPresentation" to clearly identify it as marketing materials and differentiate it from, say, a sales presentation created on the same date.
3. Use a version number if applicable
If there are multiple versions of the marketing presentation created on the same day and you want to track all of them, add something like "V2" (version two) to the file name.
4. Use an author for additional identifiability
If you want to make the file name even more specific, use the author’s name in the file. Generally you should limit it to a last name so the file name doesn’t get too long, but use your best judgment — whatever works best for your business.
5. Put it all together
Once all these elements are identified, create the file name and separate each element with a hyphen or an underscore. So the final file name for the above example could be: "20210115_MarketingPresentation_V2_Smith.pdf."
3 best practices when naming files
Do you have to go with the above example? Of course not! The naming system is up to you. After all, you'll be the one who uses it. If you want to modify the above naming convention, observe the following three best practices.
1. Consistency counts
Naming conventions must be consistent. If you’re constantly changing them up, it may be better than nothing — they should at least be searchable — but you will still be dealing with an unorganized mess. By staying consistent, your team will know exactly what to look for and all the files will be neatly organized when you sort them. Train staff to use your naming convention to the letter.
2. Be descriptive
Whatever naming convention you go with, it should be descriptive. Even if you’re not concerned with organization, you and your team will save a lot of time by understanding what is in a file without having to open it. Don’t worry too much about an arbitrary length for your file name — it shouldn’t be ridiculously long, but being descriptive is more important than hitting a certain character length.
3. Designate version
Generally you want to identify each version of a file and keep the old versions around. Sometimes you may want to go back and look at previous versions of a document, and it costs nothing to keep the old files around. This helps you properly track progress on a project and ensure you are using the latest version available.
Overhaul your document management system ASAP
People don’t think much about document control until when they need it. But instead of being reactive, be proactive and intelligent about going paperless. Set aside time this week to create document naming conventions and develop a new system for document control at your organization.
Then, explore document management software. These applications will help you not only with naming your files but also with all of the elements of carefully managing your files.
They'll keep track of a document's history, showing who accessed files and when. They'll improve the security of your files to keep them safe from hackers and other unauthorized users. And they'll make you more efficient, freeing up staff time for other tasks.