The first automobiles were plainly designed to resemble motorized horse carriages. This is surely no coincidence. Rather, the horse-and-buggy is what people had relied on for generations to get them from one location to another; when designing this newfangled contraption that would serve the same purpose, carmakers started off by sticking to what they knew. Eventually, automakers realized that the horse carriage “paradigm” was not optimal for car design, that they could make safer and faster cars by departing from the established norm.
During the past couple of decades, the widespread adoption of digital technology has garnered a transformation that is arguably even more drastic than the shift from cars to automobiles. The same sort of comfort that motivated automakers to make cars look like horse carriages has led to, for example, Word documents that look like sheets of paper, email icons that look like envelopes, and digital books that look like they’re stored on a pictorial replica of a wooden bookshelf.
Using these strategies to ease the digital transition makes sense, since we’ve gone from the tangible (words printed in ink on paper) to the intangible (1s and 0s represented on a screen as text). It’s unsurprising that we’re strongly inclined to analogize digital information to paper information. Unfortunately, this paradigm has carried over to the management of digital information. When all information was on paper, managing the information lent itself well to a siloed or containerized approach. Human resources documents, for example, were to be kept in a specific set of drawers, in accordance with a unique set of rules. In the vein of Word documents that look like paper, many of today’s enterprises manage digital information as though it were still contained in drawers and folders.
When the process of finding information involved manually tracking down a specific folder or file from out of hundreds of thousands—the proverbial needle in a haystack—it made sense to containerize. No one wanted employees to have to search all week, or all month, for their needle. But digital information can be searched much more easily; therein lies its power. To leverage that power, however, the paradigm must be reconsidered. With paper, the underlying question guiding the information governance process was “how do I make a piece of paper easiest to find for an individual?” While efficient search persists as the goal of digital information governance, the relevant question needs to be tweaked. The new question is “how do I make a piece of information easiest to find for an individual using a computer?”
We’ll explore how to best answer this question in part II of this article. Stay tuned!