When AIIM decided to increase their emphasis on people, and spread their net beyond Content Managers to attract Information Professionals, I was thrilled. It may be minor semantics, but ‘information’ is easy to understand and ‘content’ – well content makes me think of ingredients. Ingredients are sometimes managed, like when a factory produces bread, or shampoo or beer, but ingredients are just as likely to be thrown together when you and your 6-year-old bake a pretty good cake. Ingredients sound like the stuff hidden in the fine print. Information sounds important, it sounds vetted and validated and downright useful. I decided to launch a series of training sessions around the concepts of information management because we are involved in a wide variety of systems development projects right now, and many more lie ahead.
The first training session was short, in fact I finished 5 minutes ahead of my 45 minute goal, but that may have been the only thing that the audience enjoyed. The message was simple but not entirely appreciated. That we are all ‘information professionals’ sounds flattering, but pointing out what constitutes ‘professional behavior’ isn’t so appealing. One of the slides that wasn’t accepted well at all was the one titled “What’s Not a System”. From the thousands of things that aren’t systems, I chose four that cause the most problems for me:
Templates – Word, PowerPoint and even SharePoint all make great use of templates, but the idea that building a solution from a template is enough to insure consistency, reliability and usefulness is folly. Templates are like the recipes that guide our use of ingredients. We can change templates, ignore portions, delete portions or put the wrong things in the wrong place. Saying “I used the template” isn’t really the equivalent of saying “I followed the rules” – It’s more like saying “I had the rulebook open at the time.”
Spreadsheets – I like to think about spreadsheets the way I think about sports cars. In the hands of the right people, they are both fantastic. If the people are unskilled, unwilling to follow the rules of the road, on the wrong road or trying to do the wrong thing, the end result will not be pretty. You can move furniture in a sports car, but… Spreadsheets are good at so many things, but pretending to be an automated system isn’t one of them. Spreadsheets are fragile, hard to debug, hard to document, way too easy to copy (and then confuse the copies), and way too easy to be made to look official. Even worse than when people try to use spreadsheets as a data processing system, is when they try to use them as a content management system. The simple row-column interface of a spreadsheet encourages people to store, track and categorize stuff the way the top left kitchen drawer attracts gadgets. When you go back and try to sort and filter your list though, you realize that ‘Cars’ are not ‘Automobiles’ are not ‘Chevys’ are not ‘Vehicles’ and so on and so on.
Folders – My target here wasn’t just the myriad file folders on the remaining share drives in use on our network. I also took aim at the SharePoint libraries that were created, from some of those file folders. Folders and unmanaged libraries are not systems, and they provide minimal (at best) support for managing information. Yes, folders do help us to organize information, but they can’t enforce rules, they can be moved, renamed, and they can hold so many things that don’t belong in them that they are the top left kitchen drawer. Folders are a good starting point, if you have better places to put the things that are in them and if you are willing to throw some things away.
People – Actually, in a failed attempt to be cute, I said “You” are not a system. I went on to explain that people are pretty unreliable when it comes to managing information. People make the rules, but they also forget the rules they make. People take short-cuts through the processes they define, ignore the procedures or convince themselves that rules and procedures were meant to apply to “other” people. The most dangerous thing about people is that they think, and when they think, they convince themselves that changes should be made and then they make them. Systems can change, but only when the changes are confirmed to be appropriate by everyone who will be affected and then only under the control of the same process by which the systems were built. I wish people wanted to manage information the way some want to play football, then I could try something like this.