As we all know there are three main ways of storing digital information: filing, piling or tagging.
When filing we put things in a hierarchically organised folder system. With piling we dump everything in one archive folder and use the search functionality of the computer to retrieve something from that big pile. With tagging we give each document, email or whatever several keywords and we retrieve documents through selecting specific combinations of keywords.
Although piling and tagging have been advocated as better, more efficient ways to handle the ever increasing stream of digital information, filing has remained the main way our clients store their documents. And rightly so, because digital archiving, be it in Outlook or elsewhere, must not only be efficient but also transparent, so other people can access it too.
Tagging is often applied by people who store visual information, like photographers, designers and such professions. For them is specialised software available that strongly supports tagging. Windows Explorer has no such functionality, so for filing on network servers you are out of luck unless dedicated document management software is implemented. Outlook does support tagging a little bit, its categories tool can be used as a basic tagging system. But in my experience most people do not even recognise the categories as a tagging system. So the standard office software that most people use at work does not support tagging in a useful way.
Then there is the human factor. Tagging systems are often open and non-hierarchical and when several people or a whole team can freely create tags in such a system, it will quickly become a mess.
Piling is quite efficient, because by setting certain rules, you can let the computer do it for you. Retrieving things from the massive, ever growing pile by using the search functionality is a wholly different matter. When you look at how people try to find something in a digital document pile, you will notice several issues. One is that they use the search engine in very simple ways, with just one or two words, which produces too many or irrelevant results. A second problem is that when searching they often use words that are idiosyncratic and not obvious for colleagues or successors. That creates a transparency issue.
A third problem is that the search functionality in Windows sucks. AFAIK both the Explorer (not meaning IE) and Outlook use indexing systems that should enable effective searching. But unfortunately the search interfaces have not changed in at least 15 years and that is not because they are so great. They are outdated, inefficient en not very intuitive.
Most of our clients use filing. For them the limited support for search in Microsofts Office applications increasingly becomes a problem, because nowadays many of our clients drown in information and even if they diligently use the filing strategy, they still have to sift through too many folders and files. They too need good searching tools. So what CAN you do in Outlook, what IS possible? Well, you might try the Boolean thing. Or use search folders.
Boolean operators are logical conditions you can use in a search command. Both Outlook and Windows Explorer understand the basic three: AND, OR and NOT. You can place them between each word of your search term but mind the syntax, they must be in capital text.
Smith AND pension: Outlook will find only email that contain both words. Smith OR pension: Outlook will show email that contains Smith plus all email that contains the word pension. Smith AND pension NOT insurance: Outlook will find email that contains the words Smith and pension, but not insurance.
By combining several of these operators in a query, you can create some pretty selective searches and sift through large piles efficiently.
There is another method of searching in Outlook, one where you can set criteria in a different way. That will be subject of a new blog.