The wish and ability to organize information

Arnoud’s first law of structuring information:

The wish to organize and structure information for a group of people is usually much greater than the ability to enforce and effectively maintain this organization.

To experience this law in its full effect work for a couple of years in the corporate world, with a focus on growing companies. I am saving a lot more documents on my local drive compared to a year ago. I either do not know where to properly put them or do not have the access to store them.

The best example of this law are folder structures and permissions on file shares in companies. People come up with detailed hierarchies of folders and associated permissions in order to prevent what they call unwanted access. They are rolled out because they seem to be a good idea. A year later nobody is exactly sure what the idea was but everybody agrees that it has become a big mess. So the solution is to take everything there is and create even more structure.

I have also seen this law in effect when working with JIRA, I have created numerous projects that contain zero or only one issue.

I can only guess at some of the causes, the more rules the more exceptions, lack of knowledge about the so called standard, lack of consequences for nor following the standard and different personal opinions. I think the exact cause is not so relevant. I have become extremely cautious supporting such reorganizations of information structures. The more complex they are, the more barriers to actually using the systems and the more likely they will end up in a big mess. Keep it simple.

This law is particularly true for hierarchical systems, like windows folders and Active Directory. This is also why I think wiki’s are such a great tool, they take a lot more loose approach to structuring information.

For further reading see my Hierarchies versus Labels post on a different way to organize information.

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2 Responses to “The wish and ability to organize information”

  1. Lennaert Says:

    I agree with Arnoud’s observation regarding information mess and overload. The pace of business has increased enormously the last 10 years or so, and time to structure and store business information (files) is nowhere to be found. See the enormous contrast with the ancient physical information archives of the 1970’s.

    One thing is that very few organizations actually see the need to have a consistent and well structured information management environment. They do not see the price of not having the information at hand when needed, or the costs of working with incorrect versions of information. Also, the cost of unorganised / messy file structures are very difficult to measure.

    Unfortunately, I have not yet found a suitable alternative to the windows file folder (structure). I also do not think it has something to do with systems. To me it is all about
    -organization structure (why not have a librarian?) and
    -culture (why do people just put their files somewhere without asking if that is the correct place for the rest of the organization).

    The systems should only facilitate this. Intelligent systems that help with (auto)tagging and cataloging the information are more than welcome. Any suggestions?

  2. arnoudm Says:

    Thanks for your comments Lennaert.

    I agree with you that a basic attitude of wanting to share information and make it accessible is key to making this succeed. Procedures and systems should follow in that order. More often than not it is exactly the other way around, first a system is introduced than everybody is told how to use it.

    Maybe sometime someone will come with a way of storing documents that mimics windows folder structure, is no more difficult to use and has the possibility to add tag and has a google like search integrated.

    Best of all worlds is what we would call this.

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