Helping users find electronic records is big challenge, regardless of whether those records are stored on a shared drive, in the cloud, or in an electronic document and records management system (EDRMS).
Since there are a number of different ways users can find electronic records, we thought we would compare a few of the more common methods to help you decide which one is best for your situation and needs.
Metadata vs. e-folder structures and full text search
Traditionally, electronic records have been stored on shared drives. To help users find the documents they are looking for, many organizations will develop a hierarchical folder structure. Most of us would be familiar with this approach, in which records might be organized into folders by department, by year, by client, etc. Sub-folders help break up the documents into manageable sized groups for easier visual scanning. For example, in an accounting department, a folder structure might look like the following:
- Accounts payable
- Accounts receivable
- And so on…
When we put ourselves in the shoes of users, you can imagine scenarios in which this structure works very well. For example, if you are creating a report that involves all invoices for a single vendor in a particular year, it would be relatively easy to locate the applicable records using the example structure above.
However, what if you wanted to look at all the business dealings with a particular vendor over the last 10 years. In this case, it would take much more time to pull the required records, since you would have to manually click through the various "fiscal year" folders looking for the vendor in question.
Text search tools can make this process a little easier. You would simply enter the vendor name as a keyword and then search the full text of records for matching keywords. Ideally, the search results would list all the accounts payable files relating to that vendor. However, what if the vendor name includes a common term that appears in the contents of many other records? Or, what if the vendor is also a customer? In these cases, the results from the full text search would contain many documents that are not relevant to your report. This means you would have to scan through the search results – and potentially open numerous documents – to make sure you have the ones you need.
Metadata goes one better
Metadata (usually used in the context of an EDRMS) offers a much easier and accurate option than folders structures or full text search. Metadata can be thought of as "tags" that describe the content of electronic records. In the physical world, this would be like adding color-coded sticky notes to a group of moving boxes. Instead of having to look within the boxes, you would simply look at the sticky notes to find boxes that contain the items you are looking for.
In our example of the accounting department, the records might be tagged with metadata such as:
- Fiscal year
- Client number
- Vendor number
With the metadata in place, finding all the invoices from a given vendor last year is a quick and simple task. You would simply perform a metadata search for:
- Fiscal year = 2013
- Vendor number = X
This would instantly pull up all the records you need, and only the records you need. Not only does this save a lot of time, it also ensures that your report will be accurate.
While folder structures and full text search have their benefits, metadata is the hands down winner when it comes to efficiency and accuracy. In next week's blog post, we will look at what it takes to get started using metadata.
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