Math vs. Memory

clip_image002On the tortured path to my BS in Chemistry, I had to complete a course in Quantum Mechanics. Prior to our final exam, one student asked if we could bring a page of formulas so we didn’t have to memorize them. The professor replied: “why would you ever try to memorize a formula that you easily can derive?” He then proceeded to fill half the chalk board with the derivation of one critical formula. I knew that I would fail the exam if I didn’t memorize that formula. I also wasn’t impressed with his prowess at math; I was angry with his arrogant exhibitionist behavior. I didn’t pursue a career in chemistry, but that man taught me an important lesson about how not to deal with people.

Earlier this week, I was drawn into a discussion about the need to file lists of contacts that we are moving into a SharePoint Custom List. Word to the wise – never argue with a lawyer. As I’ve mentioned before, we have a group of people, most of whom work for our member companies who comprise our Board and various Committees of the Board. As you can imagine, when we contact these people, we want to have the right email address, the proper title, and it would be nice if their names were spelled correctly. Moving the contact information into a SharePoint list makes sense; the tricky part is to represent the people in all the places they need to be. For example, one Board member is the Chairman; he is also on several other committees. This person will only serve as Chairman for two or three years, but he might remain on the other committees for a longer period. We have to be able to identify with certainty the people who are on, say the Investment Committee. That would be easy, but we also need to know who was on the Investment Committee last year, the year before that and possibly who was on the committee in 2006. We also need to be able to chart the service of individual members.

Although the data guy inside of me knows that I could create a list with a bunch of metadata that would allow me to programmatically determine the current and historical status from a single list, that’s not the way that we decided to go. We created a master list of people, and then, using that as a Lookup List, built separate lists for each committee. Committee lists and views can be rendered easily, used as a mail merge easily and printed easily. I gave up pursuing an algorithmic way to render this all from one list when I remembered my chemistry professor: the goal isn’t to impress people with our prowess, it’s to make their job easier! Also, an amazing solution that requires people to chase me down every time they are faced with a different requirement is actually a failure. 90% of the value of this solution comes from the fact that there is a single list of contacts. OK, I made up the 90% statistic, but hopefully we can agree that making the list faster, slicker and more complicated really won’t add much value.

With the lists complete, we moved onto two difficult questions:

  1. Do we ever need to keep printed copies of these lists?
  2. How far back do we complete these lists? (At some point we start including people who have retired or are otherwise no longer with us).

I’m going to answer these in the opposite order from which they arrived. Typical of many ECM and SharePoint questions, the answer is “it depends”…sorry. If someone retired last year, his or her information should be in the list. If someone last served on a committee in 1999, maybe we don’t need them. On the other hand, I’ve heard questions like “who was on the board when we decided to…?” so maybe the farther back we go the better. Actually, this discussion is a good segue into the unexpected answer to the first question.

My position on the first question was an unequivocal “no!” In this case, I was going to channel the spirit of my old professor

Why store a copy of a list that we can easily reproduce on demand?

Well, we might want to store the really old lists, where everybody is retired and where they might not even have had an email address. We also might want to keep the list smaller by relegating unlikely queries to a manual lookup against an old document. Finally, the trick answer that the lawyer hammered me with – “we have meetings with these people and the minutes of those meetings require a list of committee members” – touché.

One thought on “Math vs. Memory

  1. That’s my favorite coffee cup, emblazoned with Little Guard Duck (a character in the wonderful comic “Pearls Before Swine”). I like the fact that the pin is pulled and he’s about to toss the grenade. My boss often says that tossing grenades is his function at our meetings, so the cup is appropriate

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