On Filing

I got a friend of mine, Douglas, to write this for me more than ten years ago. It’s been sitting in a file. Reading it now it’s as though it was written in another century, which, of course, it was…

Nobody likes Filing. Do they? Surely not. You couldn’t.

Filing is a fundamental source of office jokes, in every office, everywhere in the universe. “I haven’t done my Filing for so long, there’s a bacon-and-dinosaur-egg sandwich halfway down the heap.” “We call our long-term fossil-fuel reserve the Filing.”

It is also the oldest office reproach and scourge. “And when are you going to tackle the Filing?” Worse still: “And when are you going to do my Filing?”

That “And…” gives the game away. It is a warning that the Filing is – as well as an offence in itself – the indefensible charge in a long list of misdemeanours. The Filing is always there as a sin of omission. It is the fly in the ointment of your annual appraisal. It is the function that is never going to be more-than-adequately fulfilled – with an in-built tendency to failure.

It is also a key indicator of office status, marking the fault-lines in the office class wars. Offices split into three classes: those who do someone else’s Filing, those who do their own, and those who have someone to do theirs. Flattening the structure – in modern jargon – simply means that we all do our own. (Ha! Ha! Except the Boss.)

You cannot do Filing and have a key to the Executive Washroom.

Filing says a lot about the efficiency-versus-size quotient of an office. In the good old days, when Bob Cratchit sat at his high desk in a starched collar, there were perhaps offices – though certainly not Mr Scrooge’s – where there were enough clerks to get the filing done, in office hours. Old-fashioned solicitors had japanned deed boxes for clients’ papers. (There was also a lot less paper.)

Nowadays an office with enough people to keep on top of the Filing is almost certainly Over-Staffed, according to current thinking. If it is a commercial organisation, it is surely ripe for a takeover, and efficiency savings under new management. If it is a public office, it must be ruthlessly re-structured and down-sized, before the newspapers find out about such monstrous waste of public resources.

But nowadays – and also however – everyone is too busy doing new business to clear up the old business. And that is in a good office. In most offices, everyone is too busy fighting today’s fires to shift the mounds of paper that yesterday’s crises generated.

The trouble is, those mounds of paper can suddenly burst into flame – metaphorically, if not actually. Something suddenly comes alive, and a piece of paper is Needed. The Authorities arrive with vans, and everything is boxed, and taken away for an Investigation; and no-one knows what was there. No-one even knows what might have been better going into the shredder…

So why do we file? Why should we file? What should we file? What do we get from the misery, and what do we lose by not enduring it. Might we even enjoy it? Untangle those questions, answer them and absorb the answers, and perhaps we learn something.

First off, the simple purpose of it, we file things because we may – or will – need them later. Probably in a hurry. At a very busy time.

So it is the aim of a good filing system to be organised in such a way that we can put our hands on something without remembering exactly where we put it. That means it has to have a coherent and comprehensible structure – which will accord with how the question of where we put something presents itself, as much as how the problem of where we are going to put it presents itself at the moment when we are trying to shift this pile of decomposing wood-pulp off our desks immediately after the Office Nag has finally forced us into doing so…

That use of italics is significant. The great academic discipline which uses italics in this way is philosophy. And Filing is philosophy. Decisions about where to put something in a structure, so that questions match up with previous answers, are essentially philosophical. They are also contingent.

While there are universal principles involved in Filing, each organisation ideally needs its own system. The reason for that is that each organisation is different: not merely a logical structure (if only!), but also a unique organism.

That is why Filing – or, rather, complete control of the filing system – usually and ultimately belongs, in any organisation and if it does at all, to the immensely respected, but formally lowly-graded (although at the very top of all the gradings conceivably available to her) PA to the CEO, who will retire any year now – when she will no longer yield to being beseeched on bended knee to stay on – with a national honour, like the OBE. This will have been obtained for her by the CEO and Chairman, after hours of formal representations – typed by the CEO’s wife, or sometimes (yes) by the putative recipient herself – and much informal lobbying of Ministers at official dinners, whenever any Minister is so unwise as to come within reach of either of them.

Why the concerted attack on the Honours System, on Her behalf? Because She – and her knowledge of the Filing System – represents the essential short-term memory of the organisation. That is how – and why – the CEO (and/or Chairman) can stay in control. She is, to that extent, the organisation: because, through the Filing, and through that Short-Term Memory, She gives it continuous personality, so that it can be known, and stroked, and disciplined, and preserved.

And if the Chairman and the CEO don’t get her a gong, they’ll never find anyone as good, and as dedicated, to replace her. Simple – if complex – economics. Especially in a world where CEOs and Chairmen come and go in a revolving door of executive mobility.

That is the point of Filing. Memory is Power. Why do computers have Random-Access-Memory? Because it is the thing that turns them from counting machines into (still relatively inefficient) simulacra of the Human Brain. Before computers, there was only Filing.

And Filing still reigns supreme.

This brings us onto the paperless office.

Fine. Say most things come in electronically. Say the system never goes down. Say any piece of paper that does come in can be scanned in as much time as it takes to open an envelope. Still the decisions remain.

Important to keep, or to discard? (Filing in the appropriate – the circular – receptacle?) Where to keep it, if it is to be kept? It is just as frustrating to hammer a keyboard in vain, looking for something lost in cyberspace, as it is to rifle through filing cabinets.

The decision of Where To File is philosophical – or, more precisely, casuistical. That is – to look beyond the vulgar dictionary distrust of casuistry – it involves the resolving of problems by the application of principles to particular instances. Filing is of the essence of casuistry. And vice versa.

Such fine judgments depend on the deepest possible understanding of the organisation concerned, and its stated principles and purposes. For databases must be set up. This involves the conceptualisation of what the organisation does, and what it does and does not need to record, whether for internal or external (legal and regulatory) purposes.

And then, when that Herculean labour has been accomplished, Filing demands that an individual decision is taken with regard to each piece of material entering the office. First, whether to keep it. Secondly, and if so, where to File it. Or thirdly, sometimes, desperately: whether it represents a need for a whole new category in The System.

That last calls the whole philosophical basis of the enterprise into question. So it is often ducked. And the Thing may be shoved into the nearest file – electronic or actual – that seems plausible. That is, it is misfiled. Whereas actually the Thing – and the difficulty of Filing It – may in fact represent the very first indication of a need for the organisation to change, to meet a new world outside…

Now do you see the need – and the challenge of – Filing?

Or where should we File this?

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