Computers are highly efficient information storage and management systems, but only if the computer user sets up a sensible framework or filing system for grouping and ordering that information in the first place.
In any organisation it is important that there is a universally agreed system for naming and filing records and documents. Client, service, administrative and financial information must be stored so that it is accessible to all others authorised to access that information. If workers set up their own individual storage systems that are understandable only to themselves, the use of computers will contribute to rather than resolve information and communication problems.
Computers through the widespread use of email and electronic transfer of documents and databases that are able to collate vast amounts of information have increased the speed and volume of workplace communication. They have also increased the possibilities for turning individual bits of data into useful information. All workers must be disciplined in maintaining order within the vast amounts of data they will deal with in the course of their work, so that enhanced electronic communication remains valuable and does not become a pressure, a diversion or a hindrance.
Word processing and spreadsheets
Most people using computers in their work will be familiar with Word files (typed documents), Adobe PDF files (published documents) and maybe also Excel spreadsheets (for working with numbers). Files will be called something like staffmeeting.doc or clientbrochure.pdf or budget2007.xls. The program used to create a file is indicated in the structure of the name by the letters appearing after the dot: doc, pdf and xls. The type of file is one way that files can be searched for and identified.
The name chosen before the dot, and the folders used to store the file, need to be as expressive and as logical as possible. The filing system within a computer needs to be as easy to find your way around as a well-designed and well-maintained manual filing system.
If you dont already have one, your organisation should develop a standardised structure for the naming and storing of all computer files, so they can be easily retrieved when needed. So, for example, minutes of a meeting might always be named to indicate both the type of meeting and the date (e.g. staffmeeting_07_06_20.doc) and placed in a folder called Minutes within another folder called Staff communication on C drive. The computer will then be able to group all staff meeting minutes together in date order, and everyone on the team will know where to look for them. The description of how to find the file (the pathway) would be:
Email correspondence, like paper mail building up on desks and in filing trays, can get into a mess if it is not regularly sorted out. All workers responsible for an email in box, whether for email addressed specifically to them as individuals or to the organisation or team, need a system for:
- responding to and acting on messages that have come in
- remembering messages that have been sent and expecting a response
- putting messages and attachments away neatly if they are to be kept
- deleting those that do not have to be kept.
Email systems are set up to help with these tasks, with different sections and options for sorting emails. Within this overall structure, it is essential to have an agreed procedure for how information in emails is handled, specifying timeframes and conventions for file names and locations. Particularly important is the subject given to an email, and the name given in the address book to describe whom an email address belongs to.
Policies and procedures about exactly how and when emails are written are very important. There are generally agreed conventions about what is good practice in writing emailsfor example, having a subject that clearly and concisely explains the content of the email; using capital letters sparingly and for emphasis (excessive use is considered equivalent to shouting).
A database is like a large table, with each column a different category of information and each line a different individual, agency, or situation. In a database the columns are called fields and the rows records.
|Field 1 (e.g. name)||Field 2 (e.g. address)||Field 3 (e.g. referral date)||Field 4 (e.g. assistance provided)||Field 5 (e.g. date of leaving service)|
Information entered into a database can be sorted by using the fields as the basis, so they are chosen to be as useful as possible to the task at hand. Simple databases can be used to keep lists of names and contact details for other agencies, service statistics, or details of policies. For example, an agency database could contain contact information and service details, and be used to generate addresses for a mailing to all agencies on the list, and also a printed list of particular types of agency in a particular location.
The quality of design of the fields in a database will influence how easy it is to extract information and use it for a variety of purposes. The quality of the entry of data (issues such as accuracy, consistency, timeliness) is equally important and, as with other storage systems, so is the removal of information that is out of date or no longer required.
Client management systems
Client management systems (CMS) are databases for storing and collating information on services provided to clients.
Some community organisations have developed their own systems in-house to manage their client records, data collection and reporting. These systems may use commercial database programs such as the Microsoft Office program Access, or they may have been custom designed by an IT systems specialist. Some organisations have purchased systems designed by others, but specially suited to their type of service.
The purpose of a CMS is to make the job of storing, retrieving, collating and reporting client and service delivery information quick and easy.
A good CMS will be:
- appropriate for your organisation both now and over the next three to five years. It should fit with your objectives, contribute to improvements in service delivery, and be able to handle the expected number and size of records and the type of reporting you want it to do.
- easy to use and audit to minimise mistakes in the entry, alteration and deletion of information, and to enable tracking of changes made to personal and financial records
- reliable (in software terms, stable). This means that it does not unpredictably close down or freeze the screen when you are using it, or fail to do what you expect.
- well supported by a person or company fully experienced in the system and familiar with the needs of the types of organisations it has been designed to assist. It is preferable to buy a CMS that comes with a user manual, as well as offering ongoing online and phone support.
- ethical and legal in its format, particularly in relation to compliance with privacy legislation, anti-discrimination legislation, and confidentiality
- compatible with your software and hardware (but you may have to upgrade these to get the system best suited to your needs)
- financially viable. The cost of a system and the hardware needed to run it, and the costs and effort of installing it and learning to use it, will be related in part to its level of sophistication and capacity. If you have a very small organisation operating a single service from a single office, you may not need the system designed to handle the complexities of a multi-site, multi-service organisation.
The questions you may want a CMS designer or supplier to answer before you make a decision to purchase their system include:
- Meeting our objectives
- How does this particular system fit with and further our values and objectives?
- Client needs
- How will our client needs be met, especially in relation to privacy?
- Will a single authorised person be able to control the assignment of usernames and passwords?
- Are files and transactions encrypted?
- Will anyone in your company be able to gain access to our files in their un-encrypted form? If so, what guarantees will be provided against misuse of our files by your staff?
- What safeguards are there against error and fraud?
- Convenience/ease of use
- Can you fully explain the processes that our staff will follow to use this system?
- Is there a user manual?
- Do you provide initial training, and what is the cost of this?
- What technical support will be available?
- Ease of adoption/minimum disruption
- How much staff time will be needed to convert our existing files to the new system (data entry, scanning, checking, etc.)?
- How long will we be without a working system?
- Financial viability
- What will the initial outlay on software and hardware be?
- Will there be any other costs over Year1?
- Will there be costs in subsequent years?
Overall, will the CMS
- improve service delivery?
- provide staff with a valuable, easy-to-use tool?
- reduce administration and duplication?
- be cost effective?