Saturday, August 6

Digital Tools / Paper Mindsets

Someone, perhaps unwisely, gave me keys to this blog and asked me to write. We'll see how long it lasts...

For this first post are some long held observations on the use of communications technology. We know and see people spending a majority of their workday, or just walking around town, plus what they do at home, in front of the computer, the cell phone, the blackberry-- immersed in digital tools. However, it sure seems we still think in a paper mindset. Think about our terminology. We read web pages. We insert bookmarks to remember pages. Heck, I am surprised we do not refer to web sites as web books.

Mainly I am thinking of email, both boon and bane of our workday. Sharing information by email in our organization is the expected norm-- and the scourge of spam is bad enough in terms of time and productivity wasters, but also when it is used be well intended people in an inefficient way.

The ones that make me scratch my head are messages that arrive with subject lines like "Tuesday Planning Meeting Agenda" and upon opening the message is no agenda, no message, just an attached Word document. This makes the agenda, essentially text only content, yet one more click, and one more application launch away. And what does one really do with a nicely formatted list of basic bullet points? Print it? When I send agendas, they are right there in the body of the email, readily scanned, right there ins the message.

One of our groups, actually a technology group, has done this for years. But they've recently stepped up the level. They've created a portal for online community building. Oi! So the meeting notice is like, this, "Upcoming meeting. Click here for agenda." I click there. It's certainly a portal like pile of boxes and links. I find the one labeled meetings. I click the link for this month. It's another web page. I click a link that is labeled "agenda". What do I get?

It's the same old Word document. So now the agenda is about 3 clicks and an application launch away. It's what happens when we are stuck in document - paper - print mindsets. It is all about the "page" and not the content.

This was a puny example of a syndrome I have elsewhere labeled email attachment disorder. Beyond Google's gmail, general e-mail is about the worst and most inefficient system for organizing information. Much of the information shared in our system has no permanence beyond what is stuffed into an email. But there is no long term organizational memory or archiving of email, it is rarely widely searchable, and for large media files, it is sent to many more people than will actually view it. It is a paper mindset, stick a copy in everyone's mailbox.

For as long as I've been responsible for our office's online content, I've had to urge, remind, nag to always plan up front that everything we do have some sort of electronic presence, record, etc, especially for those that are unable to participate in our activities. Groups I am responsible for put their agenda up as a URL and filled in later by meeting notes. Our Ocotillo Online Learning Group has held monthly meetings back to 2000, which I know because all meeting notes have been archived, making them potentially searchable and internally linked to relevant content. This is what happens when you think about information in a web mindset, freed from the constraints of single throw away documents.

How about the N-factorial e-mail messages needed for N number of people to plan a meeting? For a different tactic, see Lee LeFever's Common Craft article on Wiki and the Perfect Camping Trip. Now that is using digital tools in a non-paper frame of mind. And it's been done in real life.

This web thinking is playing into our new plans to cease the print publication of a long running journal, which costs our unit thousands of dollars per year plus intense time spent in editing (getting the one off print version perfect), in lieu of a web publication that will, we hope, expand the range and types of content we can publish, plus add features not available in print.

We are trying to break of the proverbial box, which is after all... a paper product.

So what's it like in your organization? How does it organization and archive its processes? e.g. is there organizational memory? Are digital communication tools used to push around electronic bits of paper? Or does it really leverage the power of the digital terrain? Are they thinking digitally?


Clark Aldrich said...

I worry when people get too excited about emerging, unvetted technology, over-extrapolating limitted data points.

Having said that, Wiki's are very exciting to me! They seem to get around the transient nature of emails and listservs, while also becoming more robust and easy to navigate than blogs and forums. How many times has someone asked a question on a forum, only to have someone say, "that question has already been asked six different times."

One could argue that wiki's act more the way the human brain does, constantly modifying a comprehensive view of the universe, building new links and new content.

Having said all of that, they have to be visited, so are less good at engaging "interupt driven individuals" who tend to be pushing real boundaries every day. They also greatly favor text, links, and pictures over other forms of content, but that limitation is not a nature of their "wikiness," but more of our input tools.

Lee Kraus said...

I adopted the JotSpot wiki and have implemented it with our development team. While I personally adopted to it quickly, my team was relectant, but in the past few weeks we have started to post all meeting notes, task updates, links to references, and appropriate MS Office documents and it seems to be a more productive approach.

I really like to use it to kind of "drill down" on the issues within the meetings, projects, or proposals that we are working on.

Anonymous said...

Really interesting article