I'm no Marie Kondo, but I spend a lot of time thinking about how to organize information.

This column, for example. A guide for employees about a new pay program. An intranet. 

And way before Marie Kondo tackled messy closets, a systematic guy named Richard Saul Wurman perfected the art of organizing--so much so, in fact, that Wurman's method works for anything you'd ever need to organize.

Not familiar with Wurman? He was the founder of TED Talks, the originator of the term information architect, and author of many books, including Information Anxiety. He writes:

While information may be infinite, the ways of structuring it are not. And once you have a place in which the information can be plugged, it becomes that much more useful. Your choice will be determined by the story you want to tell.

Wurman's organization system is based on five categories: Location, Alphabet, Time, Category, and Hierarchy (LATCH).

For example, "if you were . . . communicating about the automobile industry, you could organize cars by place of manufacture (location), year (time), model (category), or Consumer Reports ratings (hierarchy). Within each, you might list them alphabetically."

I'll provide more details about how LATCH works in a minute, but first let me share two insights from my experience organizing information (and everything else; I just completed a major home renovation that involved storing nearly everything I owned and then putting it all back once construction was done):

  1. Marie Kondo is right: You can't organize anything until you get rid of a lot of stuff you don't need. This applies equally to T-shirts and to intranet content. You need to admit that old college field hockey shirt and the outdated HR policy from 2003 don't spark joy--and therefore need to be donated or thrown out--before you start rearranging them.
  2. The most important aspect of organizing is choosing the right system. Decades after reading Ann Tyler's novel The Accidental Tourist, I still remember the fact that the main character's sister arranges her pantry alphabetically: chili beans on the same shelf with chips, cocoa, coconut, coffee, corn flakes, and croutons. An organizing system has to be useful, not just neat. As Wurman wrote, organizing well

is a key to alleviating anxiety--even if something seems overwhelming at first, you can have confidence that there does exist an organizational "handle" that can help you come to grips with the subject.

That's the Beauty of LATCH

Location. Of course, you use location for maps ("You are here"), but it's also helpful when you're trying to show how one thing (the knee bone) is connected to another (the thigh bone) in space.

Alphabet. Although everyone instantly understands their ABCs, alphabetical is not a classification you can use all the time, because many other structures (see time, category, and hierarchy) are more intuitive. But alphabetical is appropriate when creating a directory of people (Alison is ahead of Aloysius) or terms that employees want to look up (the description of Sick Day comes before that of Vacation).

Time. This structure works well in communication, especially when employees have to take action steps on a certain schedule. ("Meet with your manager in late January and enter your Performance Management objectives by February 15.")

Category. This is my favorite way to arrange things because most of us think in categories: All my spices are on this shelf, pasta's over here, snacks go there. Most categories seem natural and intuitive. For example, HR is a big group, and then you can organize by subcategories like Benefits, Policies, and Pay.

Hierarchy. Number 2 on my hit parade, because the assumption is that some things are more important than others (which, quite frankly, they are). Every time you create the "Top 3 things you need to do to complete your evaluation" or put the most critical message in a headline, with a few critical points in the article and web links to more details, you're using hierarchy to organize.

Writes Wurman,

After the categories are established, the information is easily retrievable. Each way of organizing permits a different understanding; each lends itself to different kinds of information; and each has certain reassuring limitations that will help make the choice of how the information is presented easier.

Got it? LATCH will help you organize anything.

Published on: May 1, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.