An unhealthy obsession with organization (anonymous guest post)

December 9th, 2010 by Gia Lyons Leave a reply »

The following came to me via my inbox this morning, from an individual I know, an advocate for Jive, who shall remain nameless. I asked if I could share this with all of you, and they said yes. Enjoy. 😉

More often than not, toward the end of demonstrating [name of internal Jive community platform, known hereafter as “Jive”] to potential new users, I get some crusty, arms crossed, knowledge management denizen that informs me “they have a highly structured document management process”, “they need folder and sub folders and auto-tagging to ensure everything is in its right place”, “they don’t see that in Jive”, “they don’t think Jive would be useful”, “they think social is a fad like tv or venereal disease”.

These guys, ya, they are usually guys. Usually wizened (read wrinkled with gray hair). Usually unkempt (oddly). Usually ponytailed. Always unpleasant. These guys always take the wind out of the conversation. It is not for a lack of something to say in response, most times a good portion of the room rolls their eyes and we lurch past the objections by getting the conversation back to their business objectives.

Of late, I’ve decided I am going to start carrying a manilla file folder in my bag. From this manilla folder I will produce a single piece of paper, perhaps a nice linen sheet watermarked with my initials. The sheet of paper will be completely blank. I shall place the sheet in front of me and say, “Thank you for that question. I’ve prepared a response in advance.” And then …

“You’re a hoarder, aren’t you?”

“You go home in the evenings and have to navigate through corridors of newspapers to such an extent that you’ve created some bizarre human habitrail maze. But everything is in its place isn’t it. You can find it all – that receipt for sweatsocks, yes the ones you are wearing, the ones I can see poking through your Birkenstocks – you can find that in an instant if need be – it is precisely where you put it 6 years ago. Good for you. In all seriousness, it’s good to see someone embracing their pathology. Keep it up and keep fighting the good fight because sooner or later I am sure we will recognize you for the genius you are – we will build monuments of cardboard boxes that have been purposely set aside in the off chance they could be useful again; such a shame to throw away a box used just once isn’t it? You will be vindicated and I am sure this meeting is just the start of it. In the meantime, those around you have a business to run.

Now I am not here to throw chaos in your face and call it sunshine. But I want everyone to think about the way they use documents today, your SharePoint sites, your shared drives with team project folder structures, your Atlassian Wikis. You’ve invested a lot of energy into finely crafting an organizational structure that will last a thousand years. Does anyone really use it? Do people still put things where ever the hell they want to? Do people create their own organizational structures because, like Goldilocks, some of the other structures just aren’t quite right?

Well for all your hard work, you’ve designed a Leviathan, it protects your information in a maze of organization and it defeats any ability you might otherwise have to elaborate on the work of others.

“Invest your energies in doing your jobs, not curating your insecurities”

But I understand your fear. I am here today to tell you that you need fear no more. I am here to tell you that you can go about your business, you can ask one another questions, you can search and find information and you can invest your energies in doing your jobs rather than curating your insecurities. You are afraid because you can only think in 2 dimensions, you are Cartesian – and there is nothing wrong with that – but it will drag you down and will keep you from reaching your potential because you exist in a multi-dimensional world and there are advantages to gain from the other dimensions; advantages that will make you more productive and more successful.

Your sacred organizational structures are irrelevant. When you want to find something, do you cast that objective into some unnatural hierarchy of storage – through some Linnean taxonomy that has been imposed? Or do you think about that thing in terms of it’s immediate context? Who are the people responsible for it? What type of thing is it? What collective is most knowledgeable? And that is the beauty of Jive, it exposes the dimensions upon which you naturally traverse. With Jive you have access to the authorship, not just of a single element but a whole body of work – I can find you as a subject matter expert and I can traverse the content you have contributed to our community. I can see all the places you contribute, I can access the contributions of others against that topic and I can find other content similar to my interests based on it’s contextual relevancy rather than its imposed catalogue. I can also focus on content as a type – find only dialogue, text, video, analysis as needed. These are the natural content types that have meaning to you in the manner in which you really prosecute your responsibilities as an employee.

“Don’t meander through a haystack – Search!”

Beyond the benefits of contextual relevance, that today, sadly, have been kept from you; beyond these amazing benefits, you can now search. Search! Actually look for natural language descriptions of what you need and have relevant results returned to you. You don’t need to meander through some haystack of organization – you can simply, search. You expect that of the world-wide-web; why do you not expect that of your workplace? Your simple search will then facilitate you back into the virtuous cycle of contextual relevancy and then you have the opportunity to enhance the community through your own contributions.

So, you can choose to confine yourselves to subfolders. You can choose to hack off your potential as though it were a vestigial organ. Or you can embrace the future unencumbered from the chains that have thus far rendered your best efforts useless.”

I would then like to vanish in a puff of smoke – I am still working on that bit.



  1. Jon says:

    Brilliant and hillarious. Thanks for posting Gia!

  2. Rick Ladd says:

    Man! I just love a good rant, and this one is absolutely excellent. I resonate with this argument on so many levels it’s frightening. As a 63 year-old male (who once had a ponytail and experimented with – though never inhaled – birkenstocks) with a Masters degree in Knowledge Management and many years experience pushing a Sisyphean boulder up the hill of entrenched aerospace curmudgeonliness, I just want to register my appreciation for this.

    Prior to leaving my last place of employment I made this same basic argument. In my experience most KM people will tell you the vast majority of an enterprise’s knowledge is tacit, that is locked up in the heads of their employees. Yet, when I asked why we were not spending a little more money on something like Jive, that actually allows people to connect and share, I would receive blank stares, shortly followed by a continuation of how we were going to fund our next approach at ECM.

    I’m not opposed to ECM, fundamentally, but I question putting all of one’s eggs into the same effort that has cost so much with so little to show for it. It’s why I jumped at the chance to retire a bit before I was prepared to do so, and get away from the madness.

    Perhaps you can hire me once in a while to show up and beat these old farts about the head and shoulders. I would almost do it just for the pleasure it would bring.

  3. Gia Lyons says:

    Rick, hilarious! I think that, as we grow older, it’s so very hard to open up to the concept that, hey, there might be a new idea out there that is worth listening to, and doing.

    • Rick Ladd says:

      I wouldn’t know about that, Gia. I don’t even drive the same way when I go places. All my life I’ve been an experimenter. I love – and I mean really love – trying different things and different ways of doing stuff. Sure, I sometimes find myself in a pickle, but I’m still here and happy . . . so I must be doing something right.

      Frankly, I don’t understand others my age who (how does that old saying go?) think they’re looking at the horizon when they’re actually just seeing the top of the rut they’re in!

      I ask my friends and family, if you ever find me acting like that, just shoot me. Then I want to be cremated, have my ashes mixed in with some clay, made into pigeons, and skeet shot off the back of a boat. A bang-up party culminating in my burial at sea.

  4. Steve Bell says:

    This one is just the ticket. I had one of those the other day. They requested the session to help them! It was only a bit different in that the leader of this fine organization was a women. But, everything else was spot on!

    Awesome post!

  5. Nice post, Gia! Very funny and too true. This relates to stuff I’ve been thinking about. E2.0 initiatives also bump into the BPM-ers of this world. Saying everything should be a structured process. And if it’s not a process it’s not real. I wrote about this here. Because I also see e2.0-ers stressing the other side saying: everything is a network and nothing else exists. I think these worlds are not mutually exclusive. There are things that can be and should be automated in formal processes, supported by formal (and expensive) tools. All other stuff shouldn’t be and can’t be supported by these tools. We need other tools for these networks or unstructured processes. Hey, that’s where e2.0 (tools) fit in! The same goes for KM, I think. There is stuff that fits in taxonomies or in one folder. Not much, but if it does, go that way. If not, don’t go that way. Hope this helps and makes sense!

  6. Hey Gia and mystery author. Sorry for the late response, I had bookmarked this for “read later.” I too come up against people that want to do things “the way they are used to.” However, instead of just telling them there is a new way to do things, I prefer to show them that while their method of structure is ok for them, it usually does not meet the needs of their colleagues. For example, I am an excessive tagger. I tag pages, people, microblogging messages. This helps me, and hopefully others, find that information later. However, I don’t impose a rigid structure on those tags. While I may see something as “orange” someone else could see it as “fruit.” (I’m having breakfast as I write this!) So I don’t think telling someone that “social” is all about free for all posting of information, but I also hope they can move past their old fashioned “knowledge management” ideas.