Best Practices for Document Management in the Cloud

A few years ago, I wrote a case study on NTEN’s Organizational Document Management System. While some of that information is still valid, much of it has changed and evolved. I’d always meant to write a follow-up article to address how our system and practices have changed over the years, but somehow that task kept sliding down my priority list in favor of website overhauls, database upgrades, or learning how to still get enough sleep while being a dad.

Joshua Peskay from RoundTable Technology approached me in June to see if I’d consider co-authoring an update to this article with him. That was all the encouragement I needed, as it would give me a chance to review NTEN’s own system as well as to learn a thing or two from Joshua on what he’s seen work well.

Further, we decided to expand the focus this time beyond Google Drive and make a list of best practices applicable to any cloud-based document management system. While all the tools are different and have their own strengths and weaknesses, a lot of the overarching document management best practices are tool-agnostic and will apply across the board.

So, without further ado, here’s our updated list of best practices for document management in the cloud!

Folder Organization and Sharing

Create a set of top level folders where the majority of sharing settings can be managed. At NTEN, we organize these around department, but they could also be organized around project, fiscal year, or some other system that makes sense for your organization. Sharing settings should be clearly defined and communicated so all staff understand who will have access to each folder.

As a small organization, we at NTEN find it easiest to have all our top level folders shared with everyone. Then staff can also have their own individual “my stuff” type folder to keep files that don’t need to be shared or that need tighter or more specific sharing controls. For larger organizations, it may be better to primarily share across departments or project teams in order to avoid overwhelming staff with a ton of documents they don’t have any need for.

The goal is to find the right balance between ease of sharing and ease of access. Here are a few thoughts to consider:

  • If sharing settings are too limited, it can become tedious to make sure the right people have access to the right documents. And in cases when they don’t have proper access, you risk confusion, lost productivity, or the creation of duplicate files.
  • If sharing settings aren’t limited enough, you risk people not being able to find the relevant documents they need among an overwhelming mass of documents they have no use for.
  • A good archiving system is also essential to help manage this balance.

Archive System

It’s crucial to have a good archiving system in place to make sure your document management system stays healthy for years to come.

The majority of organizational files are probably used for a matter of days, weeks, or months, and then never looked at again. After a couple years of using your system and allowing older files to pile up, it will become overwhelmed with old and outdated files, making it difficult to track down the more recent and relevant ones you need. NTEN ran into this exact issue a couple years after launch, where our once beautiful document management system had turned into a churning mess of outdated files.

As part of NTEN’s (New) Archive System, we have an archive folder for each year and then created a separate admin account that has access to all the folders in our system. During the year, as documents or folders are no longer needed, staff move them into the current year’s archive folder. Once a year, we also do a “spring cleaning” to move files that haven’t been accessed or modified in over a year into the appropriate archive folder. Once an archive folder is a couple years old, it’s unshared with all staff, so those files no longer appear in search results (it will still be shared with the admin account, though, if we ever need to go back and find an old file).

Folder and File Naming Conventions

Define folder and file naming conventions up front and communicate them to all staff.

  • Ideas for what to include in a file name include:
    • Department or project name (or a shortened code)
    • Date of file if it’s associated with a specific date (e.g. meeting notes)
      • I prefer the YYMMDD format or some version of that so similarly named files sort by alpha nicely
    • Descriptive name so it’s clear what the document is without needing to open it

Keep the naming conventions as simple as you can so they’re easy for staff to use. Here is a sample file naming policy, which is a simpler version of RoundTable’s current policy.

Backup System and Disaster Recovery

Make sure your files are backed up and can be recovered in case of a disaster.

One often overlooked aspect of using a cloud-based document management system is understanding / auditing the backup system and disaster recovery options. All these systems are built with multiple redundancies that in most ways are far superior to anything an organization could manage itself. Don’t get too cozy, though, because some of these systems may have holes or pose different risks than traditional document management systems that could leave you hanging.

For example: What happens if an employee accidentally (or maliciously) deletes an entire department’s folder and then empties the trash? Do you have any way to get all those documents back? Have you checked? Different systems have different levels of control here, but it’s worth the time up front to think through potential scenarios and make sure you have a disaster recovery plan in place (either using the system’s built-in tools, or by using a third party backup system, like NTEN does).

RoundTable has written up a short primer that helps organizations understand backups, disaster recovery and business continuity, and how to think about them for their particular needs.

Ongoing Change Management

Cloud-based document management is very different from traditional file servers. Training is clearly important, but ongoing change management is equally, if not more important.

Traditional file servers have barely changed in the past 20 years. In 1996, you could open an explorer window, view a list of shared network drives (the F drive, the N drive, etc) and access your organizational files. This is still the primary manner by which most organizations handle document management in 2016. Cloud-based document management has changed more in the past five years than traditional file sharing did in twenty years. Staying up to date with all of the functionality and potential benefits is a Sisyphean task. Unfortunately, it’s also a critically important task.

Consider how your organization will support continuous learning and improvement of your cloud-based document management system to ensure that your staff are given the opportunity to not only access, but understand and optimize the tools that can help them thrive.

RoundTable has a weekly 30-minute all-staff virtual meeting. Five to ten minutes of this are dedicated to skills training, every week. Sometimes it’s as simple as sharing tips and tricks, but we commit 5-10 minutes per week for all staff to learn something about our systems.

We hope you’ve found these tips useful, and we’d love to hear any of your ideas or tips that we may have left out.

Photo credit:

Karl Hedstrom
IT Director
Karl believes strongly in the power of technology to make our world a better place. While serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger (’04-’06), he experienced first hand many of the positive impacts cell phones and other newly introduced technologies were starting to bring to his rural village and the entire development sector in West Africa. Following his service, he was inspired to find a career at the emerging intersection of technology and social good, and had the good fortune to join the NTEN team as an AmeriCorps Volunteer in late 2006. For over a decade now, Karl has been working behind the scenes to improve NTEN’s use of technology to effectively meet its mission, and in effect striving to support all nonprofits in doing the same. Karl earned a BA in physics from Pomona College, and now lives in Seattle with his wife, two sons, yellow lab, and a pair of ragdoll cats who can often be seen sleeping on cat shelves in the background of his video calls. Outside of work you’ll find him playing volleyball, disc golf, Pokemon Go, or hiking and exploring the amazing Pacific Northwest with his family.