The modern business and the debt we owe to filing cabinets

What does a boring staple of the office – the filing cabinet – have to do with the way we do business today?

The lowly filing cabinet is not something we pay much mind to. But its creation stands as a turning point in business history. Though you might not think it, the filing cabinet has massively influenced the modern-day digital organisation.

Today, we have technology that allows us to store, access, and effectively use reams of data. Think databases, CRMs, automation software, business intelligence suites, spreadsheets, and so on. The filing cabinet paved the way for these technologies, as well as tools like online search and even voice assistants.

But how exactly did the humble filing cabinet help us reach the modern business practices of today?

The modern business

The legacy of the filing cabinet is everywhere in the way our businesses now run.

Today’s businesses rely heavily on data, from supply chain management information to in-depth customer data. Without that information, organisations would be simply unable to function at scale.

Alongside collecting and storing data, we also require its ease of access. This is where SQL databases and tools like automation become invaluable. We rely on such technology to connect our disparate technology systems and make reams of data usable for the furthering of our enterprises.

Beyond the critical role of data, diversity is also a notable part of the modern business. Compared to 100 years ago, we now see office spaces much more welcoming to women, who occupy the same jobs as their male colleagues.

And, importantly, many of these facets of modern-day business owe a debt to filing cabinets.

The introduction of filing cabinets

Filing cabinets were invented in 1891. By the 1920s, they were widespread.

Before the filing cabinet, the information collected by businesses was recorded in ledger books. Any time the information was needed, business managers had the tedious task of rifling through the ledgers manually to find what they needed.

Filing cabinets changed this ‘needle in a haystack’ approach for the better. By introducing a system with folders stored vertically, each categorised, users could find needed information with far more speed and efficiency.

In a way, you can think of a filing cabinet as an early database.

Filing cabinets and information technology

So, what differences did the filing cabinet bring to modern information technology?

Filing cabinets introduced a way to store, index, and retrieve data quickly and consistently — before the age of mass computerisation. In turn, this caused us to think about information as something that should be (and is) easy to access, and thus easy to manage and use.

This led to a shift in minimising the time spent on repetitive data administration tasks. The simple filing cabinet made frequent jobs – those relying on saving, pulling, or updating data – easier for workers to complete. It laid the foundations for the principles of information management that we still use today.

Then, with data unlocked to use more easily, business focus shifted from access to advancement. That is, organisations started to think about how to use data strategically. Information was increasingly portable, and using it was increasingly quick and easy. So, you could feasibly use data to drive operational improvements.

In short, filing cabinets changed the way we manage information.

Your computerised files and folders have their roots in the filing cabinet system. Your easy access to data – through things like search and voice assistants – have evolved from the transformational breakthrough of filing cabinets and the shift they brought in mobilising data.

The filing cabinet and women in the workplace

Filing cabinets also created a small space for women to slot into the office where they wouldn’t have before.

Because of the viewpoint at the time, women were invited to fill the role of file clerk. This job was targeted at women due to the idea that they had more dexterity in their fingers — thus allowing them to pluck the correct files quickly. From there, they could bring the information to the (almost entirely) male executives and managers to use.

Naturally, the viewpoint back then was largely sexist. Yet the introduction of the filing cabinet still offered women a new foothold in the office space. As we know, this foothold would only grow with time.

The humble filing cabinet

Filing cabinets these days are, if anything, an outdated piece of office equipment. But their legacy continues in our modern-day data storage and access.

The entire concept of having “information at your fingertips” began with the filing cabinet. Contemporary information architecture is rooted in the fast, categorised, consistent structure of the filing cabinet.

Indeed, though they may be abandoned in a storeroom today, we all owe a debt to filing cabinets for the way we now do business.

Useful links

The history of databases

Before automation, before smart assistants, was Emma Nutt

Office mechanisation: from typewriters to AI