Paper cutouts (thinking on paper part 2)

I have had some great – and challenging – feedback to my recent post about thinking on paper, including a session at govcamp (and some rich conversations before and after it) and a discussion with a group of my work colleagues about our personal approaches to managing information at work.

Govcamp reflections

There was an energetic discussion at govcamp about managing information in government (or anywhere else still a bit trapped by the paper paradigm). My post about thinking on paper provided some of the context, as did Glyn Jones’ on helping civil servants help citizens. As ever at govcamp, the conversation quickly left those starting points far behind, but unusually, it’s possible to keep track of where it went to. This year the session note taking really worked for the first time – a great feat of co-ordination by the organising team, and a virtuoso display of keeping up with a fast moving conversation in the notes of this session taken by Harry Harrold and Sharon Dale.

Govcamp discussion - paper and information

Picture by David Pearson

One of the most helpful parts of the discussion for me was the one which didn’t happen. Nobody thought this was either an invented problem or a solved one. Even in a group heavily skewed to the technically adroit and self aware, there was a sense that coping with – and contributing to – organisational information was a continuing struggle.

Points from the discussion which particularly resonated with me included

  • We share information for a reason  Information sharing is not an abstract good (or at least, will not work if that is all that it is perceived to be). Being clear about both individual and organisational purposes in creating, storing, finding and archiving information is essential to finding more effective ways of doing it.
  • Information belongs to people and says something about them Do we as individuals have any right to control how we are presented and seen through our information or this (in this sense at least) a public space? Is there a right to be forgotten, and if so, what might it be?1 There was a pretty robust response from others in the group to the effect that we could not – and should not – hope to manage reputation in this way, but the challenge is not one we should forget.
  • We can avoid the cost of organising information by not organising it There is only any point in agonising about how best to organise information if we do actually need to organise it.  But that is, of course the key question. I had Benedict Evans’ thought rattling around in my mind, All curation grows until it requires search. All search grows until it requires curation.
  • Pages are not units of information We constrain our thinking if we let ourselves get trapped into thinking in terms of paper and pages. That was one of the main points of my first post, but a couple of powerful examples came out of the discussion. The first was the statute book: law is inherently intertwined, as John Sheridan has so often demonstrated, treating it as page-based documents makes it too easy to overlook the potential power of transclusion. More generally, it’s hard to think about small, linkable pieces of information when those small pieces are trapped in documents, and those documents are the units of information management.
  • A human guide can be more valuable than an index  There was a lovely example at govcamp of how human guidance could make a huge positive difference, a handover of work where the outgoing person had made a set of short videos explaining the structure and organisation – and above all, documentation – of the work, turning what could have been a painful transition into a simple and pleasant experience.
  • If everybody helps everybody else, everybody gets helped Much of the govcamp discussion touched in one way or another on the core point that information management is fundamentally human and social. As so often, the technology is not inherently complicated, the hard bit is to have a clear understanding of users’ needs and ambitions. Success requires reciprocal altruism: I get no benefit from helping you find the information I have created or understand. I get benefit from you helping me find what you know and understand. The challenge is in creating the culture and incentives to make that become the norm.

Working in the real world

Even before the beginning of govcamp, Catherine Howe had pointed out a gaping hole in the original blog post. As she quite rightly discerned, I had been thinking very much from the point of view of an organisation which wants and needs to have its information organised, and had missed the perspective of people faced with a deluge of information and needing to find coping structures which fitted their personal preferences and styles of working. Since I am one of those people just as much as anybody else, that really was a bit of an oversight. Rather than just write down my own prejudices though, I got a group of my very helpful colleagues to talk about how they manage information and how they feel about it.

It was another rich conversation, but three points struck me particularly forcefully:

  • People are different Some people feel disorder viscerally and are profoundly uncomfortable with anything but an empty in box. Others are comfortable treating their email as a swamp, with murky contents and an ever present risk of something unexpected floating up from the depths. No technology is going to induce either group to  become the other, so any solution has to be capable of dealing with both – and everybody in between.
  • Systems create habits Not only does familiarity trump usability, but systems create assumptions of what is normal (and what becomes instinctive and apparently natural). An approach which fails to align with those assumptions risks rejection, regardless of whether on some supposedly objective measure the new thing is better.  So for some in the group, using personal email folders felt like a natural way of organising information, but using a shared folder structure did not. Knowing that something ‘should’ be done differently may be enough to induce a mild frisson of guilt, but it’s not enough to change behaviour.
  • Discouragement is easy Letting things pile up gets very quickly to a tipping point where they don’t get done at all. Filing one document when already working on it for other reasons is easy. Sorting out what to do with ten documents is a chore which organised people will do as part of their routine. Faced with a hundred – or the accumulation of a few weeks, or even a  few days – the overwhelming response is to do nothing.

That’s not the whole story, of course, or anything close to it, but it does provide the beginnings of some insights about why this is hard, and why monolithic system design will always tend to disappoint.

  1. In many cases the names of individuals will be redacted at the point records are released at the National Archives, so in one sense the concern may be misplaced. But there is also the potential for an emergent internal personal profile and reputation. That’s a good thing not a bad thing – it’s effectively one of the five principles in the previous post – but managing personal sensitivities will be an important part of getting it right.

Interesting elsewhere – 29 January 2016

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

When bright people make dull policy recommendations | Nesta
The disadvantage of the adviser’s approach is that it doesn’t put a premium on originality. After all, most good policy ideas aren’t original, and most original policy ideas aren’t good. You would expect even a very good policy white paper to include lots of old ideas. This is a problem if you are expecting the chapter to tell you something new and fresh.

What if boldness were an explicit value of the civil service? — Medium
I’ve always been drawn to boldness. I find boldness in others inspiring, infectious, empowering, creative and meaningful. I want to spend time around bold, honest, open people. I want to be inspired and empowered to boldness myself. I know I am at my best when I can feel the weird whoosh of terror and relief that comes from real, heartfelt boldness. And I don’t think you can lead a great team, or transform organisations or services without a healthy amount of boldness.

Alex Blandford — Elbow grease
Fixing big government digital problems takes elbow grease. It takes political campaigners to get the politicians buy in and the budget, it takes business planners and procurement people to get civil servants used to agile, it takes product managers and delivery teams to show value for money, it takes a range of disciplines, skills beyond sharpies and patience beyond saints.

Why Big Companies Keep Failing: The Stack Fallacy | TechCrunch
The stack fallacy provides insights into why companies keep failing at the obvious things —  things so close to their reach that they can surely build. The answer may be that the what is 100 times more important than the how.

Helping Civil Servants help Citizens | No Quick Wins
I am very much in favour of public servants being trusted to make professional judgements within the context of their work.  But if we want to drive a change towards more modern and efficient tools we should make it easy.  And at the moment, it’s too easy to carry on using a clunky combination of email, attached documents and corporate file shares rather than put the effort into assessing whether an online collaboration tool is fit for purpose – and then working out how to transfer the ‘final version’ into the official record.

Bits or pieces?: Cloud is outsourcing but it’s not outsourcing (as was).
The problem with outsourcing in the past wasn’t the concept of outsourcing but instead that organisations outsourced entire systems for which they had no situational awareness. This was foolish and of course outsourcing got a bad name except from the suppliers who cottoned onto the scam and made oodles of cash out of it. The simple reality is that there’s nothing wrong with outsourcing if you break down complex environments into components and outsource those industrialised ones.

Designing a New Operating System for Work — What’s The Future of Work? — Medium
Large organizations are a kind of technology, a technology for scaling up economic activities while minimizing costs of doing so. You could think of it as an operating system for work that’s been running for a century. And now we’re creating a new operating system, based on always-on Internet, mobile devices, social media, sensors and geolocation technologies. But this new operating system for coordinating human activities and creating new kinds of value could also be riddled with catastrophic bugs, pushing large swaths of the population to labor at subsistence levels, with no benefits and little predictability over their earning streams.

The Politics of Empathy and the Politics of Technology — The Message — Medium
The people who run the Internet platforms are making calls about who they think is deserving of empathy. That makes their decisions thoroughly political. The fact that I sympathize with the challenge of making these decisions is not what is important. Rather, I am pointing out that none of these are decisions are automatic outputs emanating from the technology itself, nor are they independent of technology and its characteristics. There are genuine constraints and issues about what’s possible, easy and straightforward to implement. The geo-fencing versus spam issue, for example, cannot be resolved without discussing the Internet’s architecture. Encryption cannot be deactivated for some people (the bad guys) without making all of internet insecure, for example. The politics of technology is politics, but it’s never just politics.

Mobile, ecosystems and the death of PCs — Benedict Evans
The things you can only do on a PC, with a native PC application, keep shrinking. Indeed, I’ve argued elsewhere that it’s time to invert our mental model and think of the PC, not the smartphone, as the limited device.

So, each new computing platform will never be used for real work, but the platform gets better and the work changes to fit the new platform. In tech, ‘never’ seems to be 5-10 years (so does ‘soon’).

A blog is your brain, over time, on the internet
Over time, a blog becomes a corpus of knowledge – your knowledge, or your organisation’s knowledge. A blog is your brain, over time, on the internet. An archive of what you think now and what you thought before. And that means it’s one of the simplest and most effective ways you can make things open, and make things better.

Stop saying technology is causing social isolation — Digital Culturist — Medium
We need to stop thinking technology is ruining everything, making us a slave to it, mindlessly using our smartphones all the time. It is not. It is enriching our lives, connecting us to the people that matter the most to us regardless of how far away they are, connecting us to all kinds of people whom we wouldn’t have met otherwise. So, stop feeling superior for making fun of other people because they’re using their smartphones, stop pretending our lives and society would be better without them, stop blaming technology for natural human behaviors.

Gotta catch ‘em all, or, a story about digital transformation in four movements | Matt Edgar writes here
Members of high-performing teams bring more of themselves to their work. Suits must mix with t-shirts, uniforms must be considered harmful. The broader its collective perspectives, the more empathy a team can build with all its users.

What if users were in the room with you? Would they feel at home? Would they understand the words you use? Would they feel valued and respected? Because workers are users too. And if the way we live our lives is changing, then so must the way we do our work. You can’t truly deliver one without the other.

What World Are We Building?
It’s easy to love or hate technology, to blame it for social ills or to imagine that it will fix what people cannot. But technology is made by people. In a society. And it has a tendency to mirror and magnify the issues that affect everyday life. The good, bad, and ugly.

So you want to manage a product? — The Product Management Coalition — Medium
Being a product manager is about making compromises between what your team can accomplish within a given period of time and what your customers absolutely need. You will continually be torn between your team, customers, and business in an impossible race against time. The minor victory is in balancing short- and long-term product strategy, no matter if your product was conceived today or twenty years ago.

Putting the “design” into organisation design – FutureGov
Good organisation design is one of the most important factors in making transformation happen, and here’s why: because we can’t bring radical change to the services we deliver without bringing radic

You Mustn’t Criticise The Status Quo At A Hackday ← Terence Eden’s Blog
If you work at a large company, or in a powerful industry, you must listen to your critics. You don’t have to believe everything they say about you, nor do you have to accept their arguments. But if you can’t listen, you’ve lost. For everyone brave enough to stand on stage and voice their displeasure, there are many more silently nodding in agreement.

Volkswagen and the Era of Cheating Software || Zeynep Tufekci
The good news is that there are well-understood methods to safeguard the integrity of software systems. The bad news is that there is as yet little funding for creating the appropriate regulatory framework for smart objects, or even an understanding of the urgent need for it. We are rightly incensed with Volkswagen, but we should also consider how we have ceded a lot of power to software that runs everything from our devices to our cars, and have not persisted in keeping tabs on it. We correctly worry about hackers and data leaks, but we are largely ignoring the ramifications of introducing software, a form of intelligence, to so many realms — sometimes called the Internet of Things.

Richie | Data is not an asset, it’s a liability
You don’t start with the raw data. You start with the questions you want answered. Then you collect the data you need (and just the data you need) to answer those questions.

Think this way for a while, and you notice a key factor: old data usually isn’t very interesting. You’ll be much more interested in what your users are doing right now than what they were doing a year ago. Sure, spotting trends in historical data might be cool, but in all likelihood it isn’t actionable. Today’s data is.

This is important, because it invalidates the whole premise of storing data just in case you’ll need it later. You simply won’t, so incurring the cost of storing and managing and safeguarding it makes no sense at all.

Actionable insight is an asset. Data is a liability. And old data is a non-performing loan.

Thinking on paper

We used to know where to put things if we thought we might want to find them again later. It was called filing. Filing got less fashionable in government about 15 years ago, not coincidentally at about the time that paper was getting increasingly displaced.1

The way we think about and manage work and information has changed a lot since then, but to a surprising extent the idea of paper has survived much longer than the reality – all too often, we organise information as if it were on paper, even when it never has been and there is no expectation that it ever will be.

That has the advantage of keeping things simple and familiar. But it also has the much bigger disadvantage of obscuring opportunities to do things better.

There are five big differences that a new approach needs to reflect

  1. paper is not the medium
  2. files and directories are not the location
  3. metadata is data
  4. people are search engines
  5. friction is failure

Let’s look briefly at each of those, and then put them together to explore the wider implications.

Paper is not the medium

Word processing programs and web sites both have pages, but they are very different things. Word can’t do anything unless it knows what size paper you have in mind, and what you seen on screen will then be driven by that paper size, even if the document never has been and never will be printed. The physical structure (the point where there is no more room on a page) has no connection with the logical structure (the point where one section ends and another begins). And in most systems, you have to take possession of a document in order to open it. Moving and sharing such documents is still all too often stuck in a world of email as transport system and endlessly self-replicating document as payload.2

There is a small advantage in doing that: it allows the same mental models to be effective in the new world as in the old. But there is a much larger disadvantage: it gets in the way of developing new mental models which are better aligned to the greater power of search and organisation which new tools allow, it means we risk getting stuck in thinking about the new world as if it shared the weaknesses of the old.3

In short, as Mark Foden has put it:

It is time to move from circulating documents to visiting texts.

Files are not the location

Paper documents live in files. The key to finding the document is to find the file. And if you might need the file, you need a filing cabinet reasonably close to hand where it can be safely stored with lots of other files, almost certainly on related subjects. That of course has enormous consequences for the organisation and physical structure of work: if the unit of work is a paper file and that file is a unique (and therefore precious) assembly of information, the location of work is driven by the organisation of information.

Translating the analogy of the filing cabinet into the digital world is arguably even more pernicious than the analogy of paper.  A hierarchical folder structure reinforces the idea that there is a single, canonical, right place for a piece of information. More subtly, it supports the idea that that right place tells you all you might want to know about the nature of the information to be found there. Yahoo gave up the attempt to create a structured directory of the web many years ago: it turned out that the connections within and between web pages were a more useful source of information than knowledge of their location – and so began the ascendancy of Google. The absence of those of strands of connection – of hyperlinks – is the fundamental reason why searching a file structure is always more frustrating than searching the web. The web was, of course, invented as a tool to support the organisation of work, for just this reason, but that’s another story.

In supermarkets and filing cabinets, physical location is a direct representation of the approach to cataloguing. Hierarchical filing structures aspire to be like supermarkets, applying an unneeded constraint of the physical world, when they could be much more like Amazon, where the physical layout of goods in the warehouse has nothing at all to do with how they are found on the website.

Would we get further by focusing on tagging rather than filing? Tagging is social, collaborative and can be game-like; filing is lonely, bureaucratic and dull – prompted by this recent post on applying tagging to books – could it be more effective in a working environment too?

The title of that post – everything is miscellaneous – is a a reference to a book by David Weinberger published in 2007. I wrote a blog post about it at the time which I don’t think has dated too badly. This is the sophisticated version of the argument that we should give up on fixed classification as a way of finding stuff: essentially that even now the way we think about filing and retrieval is dominated by the constraints of paper. There’s even a rather splendid five minute video which summarises the argument.

Metadata is data

Tags (and file locations) are of course forms of metadata, as are authors, creation dates, and a host of other data scraps which get attached to files. The level of creative imagination needed to dream up three keywords was itself an insuperable hurdle to the effective adoption of document management systems.  That’s not to say that metadata is unimportant. Some of the obvious stuff – date ranges, authors’ names and more – can be extremely valuable. But there is potential which we have scarcely begun to explore and make use of. I may be the creator of two apparently very similar documents (perhaps even so similar that it’s impossible to identify which (if either) is canonical). Understanding who has visited that text may be critical in searching an otherwise undifferentiated mass. Understanding who has contributed to it (and when, and in what order) may be what separates the historically interesting from the ephemeral.

Data, in other words, which captures the history of a document (or better still, of an idea, of a policy, of a ministerial decision) can be useful and powerful. Texts can tell their own story – with not an arbitrary keyword in sight.

People are search engines

Traditionally, we have thought of document repositories as self-contained entities. Whether they are filing cabinets or databases, the raw  material for finding stuff is contained within the stuff to be found.

In the long run, that is unavoidably true – you will get no help from the authors of papers written a hundred years ago about why they are as they are and what thinking lies behind them. But in the short run, it’s not true at all: knowing who knows stuff is often as useful as knowing where that stuff might be filed. Knowing who else has worked on similar issues in the recent past and getting their insights into what the key documents might be is often the most useful thing which can be done – but whether it is practically possible is often a matter of chance. And while filing is a chore for most people, a request to share knowledge is a mark of respect and is usually welcomed as such.

So if we want to make better use of the knowledge stored in our systems, we need to be better at finding the people who created or who understand that knowledge. And if people are the best search engines, we need the best search engine to find people.

Friction is failure

All of these problem were supposed to have been solved many years ago. Yet somehow they persist, seemingly impervious to the wonders of new technologies and new ways of working. The underlying argument of this post is that one important reason for that is that we still too easily remain trapped in framing the problem around paper, files and working practices – and that as long as we do so, the promise of digital will remain only a promise.,

But that’s not the only reason why we are still grappling with these issues. Another critical one is that we underestimate the power of friction. People are very good at balancing costs and benefits, even (perhaps especially) if they do so completely unconsciously. If benefits accrue in the indeterminate future and costs are incurred today, those costs will be avoided to the greatest extent possible. And if the present value of those benefits is at or close to zero, the acceptable cost will also be zero.

My instinct is that that explains why it has proved so difficult to persuade people even to do things which appear trivial to those who have designed the systems. Assigning keywords or navigating to the right folder are tasks which take just seconds – but if those seconds are pure cost, they will be avoided as far as possible.

There are two ways of dealing with that. The more obvious is to attempt to reduce the cost. It’s true that trying to get people to do a smaller and easier thing is more likely to succeed that getting them to do a bigger and harder thing, but if they are resistant to doing anything, it will still be a long and continuing struggle to make any kind of difference

The second way is less obvious, but I suspect is more powerful. Instead of reducing the cost, let’s aim to increase the benefits.  The time value of money (or in this case, the time value of time) strongly suggests that the scale of increase needed for benefits far in the future is likely to be unachievable. So instead, let’s look for ways of bringing the benefits into the present. That makes it much more a social challenge than a technical one. If we recognise, reward and value people who manage knowledge effectively, if we set real expectations that a piece of work will be seen as successful only if it is captured in a way which maximises its medium (and longer term) information value, then perhaps the trade off changes.

Shredding the paper

So where does all that get us? My conclusions are still tentative; we need to do more to test and explore how we best manage information in a digital working environment, and learn from those who are already doing it well. I am pretty sure though, that there are three traps we need to escape from:

Once we have got all that out of the way, we are in a position to be much more positive – addressing the challenge of using information to help civil servants help citizens.

The point of all this is not to prescribe – still less proscribe – how we might want to manage these things in the future. That thinking needs to be done, but this post is not it. The point is rather that we are more trapped in thinking about information in ways constrained by the office of the mid-twentieth century than we like to realise. If we want better solutions, we first need to find better problems.

  1. Not just in government of course. But as in other areas, the same external drivers can result in very different rates of change.
  2. This is beginning to change with the growth of cloud based services, but the cultural experience is still to download a document, then open it, and only then be able to edit or create.
  3. Getting rid of paper as a metaphor for digital information is a very different matter from getting rid of paper as a physical object. There are still valuable uses for paper, which is why the paperless office is another piece of the future which keeps receding, but that metaphorical use is not one of them.