Small organizations that don’t use a server often lack a central repository for critical information like customer data, financial information and business contacts. This information tends to be scattered across employee hard drives, on notes in desk drawers and in filing cabinets. When your business partner, bookkeeper, salesperson or office manager is out of the office, do you have access to information and files that you need?
Create a Master Information Document
A master information document, or “where things live” document, is a detailed list of where key business information resides. For example, the document might list broad categories, such as Projects, Marketing and Sales. Under each category, you would list relevant details, such as project name, marketing campaign or client, the responsible employee and the general locations of files.
Business contacts are typically stored in employee email contact lists that reside in client software on a computer or online. However, the master information document should include at least the email address and a phone number for each client as a fail-safe.
Make It Part of Your Policy, and Create a Process
Create an organizational policy that requires the use of a master information document. The policy should include which job role is responsible for maintaining the document, such as the office manager, where the document is stored, how often it must be updated and how it is distributed to staff.
Ideally, you would update the master information document as things change, which is a worthy goal but one that’s not practical in the real world. Employees are busy and forget to pass along updates right away. To ensure you capture changes without too much time elapsing, require quarterly reviews of the document by all appropriate parties.
The policy should also state that the office manager and/or business owner must have all employee user names and passwords for business-owned accounts, which includes operating system access, email access and the like.
To ensure customer needs are met, create a process for those times when employees will be out of the office. For example, before a holiday, hold a status meeting with the entire team and one-on-one meetings with managers and their direct reports. Discuss who should handle customer requests during that time and the type of information that might be needed.
Secure and Protect the Document
Because of the sensitive nature of the information you’re tracking – essentially, the keys to your business – take great care in keeping the master information document safe. You can accomplish that with password protection, encryption and backups.
Password protection is simple: require anyone opening the master information document to enter a password, and change the password every three months.
Encryption is a little more detailed, but today’s encryption applications make the process very simple. You can get software that encrypts files and folders, volumes or entire hard disks, allowing only authorized users to see, open or modify files. Full-disk encryption protects everything on that disk, making it the most complete option, and many operating systems have file and/or disk encryption built-in (that is, free). For example, Windows editions geared toward business come with BitLocker software.
Enough cannot be said for the importance of regular data backups. If you don’t have a current backup and your computer is lost, stolen or becomes irreparably damaged, you lose all of your data. That means the master information document (if you’re the designated maintainer), as well as other office documents, spreadsheets, accounting software databases, emails and contacts – whatever was stored only on that computer. So get in the habit of backing up data.
Use a Cloud Service for Safekeeping
A great option, which typically includes both encryption and backups, is to use a cloud service. These services offer low-cost, monthly subscriptions to secure online storage, which your employees can share. For example, you could set up a “General Office” shared folder that contains the master information document, your organizational policies and other office-wide documents. Also set up a Projects folder, and others for Marketing and Sales. You could also create an Employee Backups folder, which contains individual subfolders for each employee’s drive backups that only the employee and management can see, and take advantage of automated or continuous backups if available.
Online services are also versatile and secure. Most services allow users to access files from a PC, Mac, Linux workstation or any mobile device, and they use strong encryption to protect data on their site. For organizations that must comply with regulations, such as HIPAA, find out if the service of your choice meets the regulation’s encryption standards (for example, 256-bit AES encryption), encrypts data while being transmitted and provides proof of compliancy.
Go One Step Further
As your business grows in scope or complexity, the need for centralization of all files and organization of client information becomes critical. Consider using a web-based project and client management application, such as Basecamp or Projecturf, to give employees access to all pertinent information.