Putting Your Toys Away

You know that book on how everything important is learned in Kindergarten?  Along that same line, before I got into Kindergarten, my mother taught me to that if I put my toys away, I will be able to find them again later.  I am sure there was a lot of crying and whining involved, but like most people I eventually got the point.

Fast forward to the adult world.  How many times have you heard these questions:

  • Where is the latest spreadsheet?
  • Does this document have the latest changes in it?
  • Are your changes in this document?
  • Can you send the copy of the file that contains all the latest updates?

This situation is caused by the worst scourge of our time: the addiction to email.  Specifically the attempt to use email as a document management system.

The solution is so simple: find a place to put the document, where everyone can access it.  Put it there, and always update it there.  If you always get the document from there you will always have the latest copy.  If the always put updates there, everyone else will always get the change.  This is so obvious that I am sure most of you reading this will feel slightly insulted that I am spelling it out in such detail.

Why is it then so difficult to teach people this behavior?

Part of it is simply short sighted thinking:  it takes extra effort to put your toys away, and the benefit of putting them away might be a long time from now (like tomorrow).  Just like it is easier to leave your toys sitting in the middle of the room, when someone requests a document, it is simply easier to just email it to them.  Attach it as an attachment, and off it goes, problem solved … for the moment.  It takes quite a bit longer view to realize that (1) others may come back and request the document again, and (2) even that person is going to in the future want updated versions.  Why put out extra effort now, in order to save that work which will come in the future (like tomorrow).

Some of it is blindness to the dynamics: documents change over time, but for some reason we always act as this version I am sending now is the final version never to be modified again.  I laugh every time I see a document with a title that includes “FINAL” in the name.    It is even funnier when the title has multiple repetitions of FINAL.  How does this blind spot persist when at the same time we all have such difficulty locating the “updated” copy.

Some of it is selfishness:  I received an email this week from the finance department detailing exactly how to handle a particular kind of financial transaction.  From the detail of the procedure involved, it was obvious that the entire company was not expected to memorize the exact procedure.  They apparently expected everyone in the company to carefully file this important information away in a place that you can find it if the need ever arises.  Instead of taking the time to organize the information in a single place where everyone can get it, they push this task out to everyone in the company.  Multiplying the real effort to the company by many fold.  Clearly it would be better for everyone to integrate this into a corporate knowledge base, organized so I can find it if I needed, at that time that I need it.  But that kind of foresighted thinking is rare when it is just so easy to send an email.

First Step is Acknowledgment of the Problem

Let say that everyone realizes that email attachments are the problem, what can we use instead.  There are some problems with current document management systems (DMS).

Access :  I can send an email to whomever I want, and attach the document.  But putting a document into a DMS, how can I guarantee that the intended recipient can access the document?  Most internal corporate networks have become byzantine mazes as the result of attempt to control who can access what through the use of blocking certain addresses at certain routers.  I have heard this complaint from many people at many organizations.  The blocks are put into place in the name of safety, and getting thing unblocked is nearly impossible since it is virtually impossible to prove that such a change is still safe.  Desktop computer A is cut off from desktop computer B because a virus might propogate along that path.  How can you prove that virus will not?  You can’t.

Access Control:  If you are lucky enough to find a DMS that everyone can access, how do you  make sure that only the intended recipient(s) can access it?  All DMS have fine grained access control, but it is usually a large amount of trouble to change it because of the detail that you have to work at.  Addressing an email message is easy, especially if you use “Reply”.   Assigning users to access a document is easy, but there is no analog to “reply”.   Few DMS offer a way for people to request a document from those who own it.  Most DMS don’t even allow people to be aware of documents they don’t have access to, which would be necessary to make the request in the first place.

Transitive Access Control: If I send a document to Joe, he can forward it to Mary.  If I give right to Joe to access a document, most DMS systems will NOT allow Joe to give access to Mary.  It wouldn’t be “control” otherwise, would it?  But to allow a DMS to replace email, this is exactly what is needed.   In the Process Leaves system, we implemented such ability to “forward” the rights to another person, but most users find this so surprising and unexpected that they never use it.

The solution is to make a shared “room” where all the toys can be shared equally within a group.  That is the solution that many approaches have taken, and it is not difficult.  But someone still has to set up the room in advance, in anticipation of the need to share, and most people will not take this step.  It is just easier to send the documents as an attachment and force the work onto everyone else.  In groups that I work with, even making the room available to people, they rarely get used.

Any ideas on how to break the email addiction? Any tricks you know of in getting people to use “places” to put documents?  I made a similar plea last year in “Page First, Then E-Mail, Please” about the email message itself.  Otherwise, I am afraid, it is a bit like teaching teenagers the benefits of a tidy room — in other-words: a lost cause.

7 thoughts on “Putting Your Toys Away

  1. Keith

    Good point. When we used to print our program code at old times, every novice programmer hand-wrote “the last version” on top of the hardcopy.

    I’d call it msword+email addiction. We try to break it with wiki but access control is an issue. So we came to decision to set up a separate wikis for every significant project. The project team including the members from customer’s side is granted full access, others have no access.

    Correction: acknowledgement is the fifth step after anger, denial, bargaining and depression (or was it acceptance?) 🙂


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  5. Keith,

    For this situational need the answer is online social networks, rather than online group spaces as a network is similar to how email works, only it’s open and networked.

    I mentioned your frustration here

    And I refined the situational need of “no need to report back to base” here

    Then I expanded this train of thought in using online social networks for spontaneous conversations rather than email…online groups simply cannot handle this situational need http://libraryclips.blogsome.com/2010/09/16/spontaneous-conversations-across-levels-of-hierarchy-and-departmentsemail-or-microblogging/

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