A Place for Every Thing

There is an old adage: “A place for every thing and every thing in its place.” And yet, if you’ve ever shared space with another human being, you know how hard it can be to (i) identify that one place and (ii) get everyone to put each thing in its “proper” place. (As I write, I’m staring at a bottle of dish washing liquid that always ends up on the “wrong” side of the kitchen sink, despite my best efforts!)

So why is it we think we can do better in our law firm knowledge management programs? The reality is that people often define the “proper place” for content differently. You only have to look at the variations in social bookmarking to see this. So, for example, instead of creating a rigid top-down taxonomy that imposes a regime of a single place for each thing (and then devoting the necessary resources on enforcement), why not spend your energy creating systems that allow users to organize the content as they see fit? After all, the point is to enable their easy use of the content — it really isn’t about ensuring that they find and use that content only in particular places.

At the end of the day, the purpose of the adage of one thing/one place is to eliminate options so that that you always know where to find your keys, your wallet, your cellphone, etc.  With the advanced search tools available today, we don’t need to worry about this quite the same way when it comes to electronic content. So instead of enforcing a single way of doing things, meet your users where they are. I guarantee they’ll be happier  — and then so will you.

9 thoughts on “A Place for Every Thing

  1. Mary – I agree! But taxonomies can be exercises in collective sensemaking. When we work together we have to find common ways of talking. The new world offers a flexibility between top-down order and bottom-up individualism. Matt

  2. Mary -I find this concept to be one of the most difficult from a people and a technology perspective. Few legal tech vendors understand the concept and so the architecture is not there to support it. The DMS is the best example.On the people side, they think things should be categorized one way (their way).Have you read David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous? It dramatically change my thinking on this topic.

  3. Matt -You’re right about taxonomies. I didn’t mean to suggest that we throw out the baby with the bathwater. I suspect that it may be helpful to have a simple taxonomy that provides basic (and hopefully) noncontroversial structure and sensemaking, and then let individuals customize or provide personally relevant context as necessary.- Mary

  4. Doug -Isn’t if funny how people seem to believe that there has to be one right way — their way? Looking at this as charitably as possible, I suspect that the drive to impose that single way is really an attempt to ensure a reliable way to find content again. The solution is probably some combination of better tools, better training, better sensemaking by KM, and more willingness on the part of users and firm managers to admit that both technology and users are fallible.- Mary

  5. I see social bookmarking as supplementing a top-down taxonomy but not supplanting it entirely. Social bookmarking offers some unique advantages to users as well as knowledge managers. But to a user who isn't sure what he or she is looking for, a taxonomy provides guidance that may not be achievable through a tag cloud.Consider an online shopper looking to buy a digital camera on Amazon.com. Maybe I'm replacing my old Canon PowerShot SD550 and I know I want something similar. If I search "canon powershot," I'll get a pretty relevant list of cameras to choose from. (Hint: get the SD870IS.)But suppose I am new to digital photography and I have only a vague idea of what I want. In that case, I'll want to browse the Electronics department, drill down through the Camera & Photo category and see what's available for what price in the point-and-shoot category, the digital SLR category, etc.

  6. Mary, if you haven’t seen it already, you might be interested in looking at William Jones’s book, “Keeping Found Things Found.” He writes about personal information management in a detailed – and enlightening – manner that is impossible to summarize in a short commentary like this.Joel Alleyne has written a review fairly recently: http://www.slaw.ca/2008/10/21/keeping-found-things-found-our-challenge-in-the-age-of-the-information-tsunami/. There is also a website: http://kftf.ischool.washington.edu/index.htm.John

  7. Paul – I agree that there is a place for both a taxonomy and social bookmarking. A relatively high-level taxonomy can provide welcome context and structure (like a spine), without distorting unduly the work flows and search habits of users. However, when we are tempted by a multiple-level taxonomy, we should consider the relative merits of leaving well enough alone and letting the users customize around the edges via social bookmarking. This combination of high-level guidance and in the weeds customization seems to strike the right balance in terms of effort on the part of the KM department and user friendliness. – Mary

  8. John – Thanks for letting me know about “Keeping Found Things Found.” It sounds like a worthwhile read. I’ve certainly changed my practices and am focusing more on personal information management. Are you aware of any law firms that have changed their practices in this regard?- Mary

  9. No, Mary, I am not aware of any firm that has changed its practices. Personal information management covers so many aspects of one’s life, and the work and personal aspects are so intertwined today, that the problem is difficult to pull apart.

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