Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Why do we use email?

There has been a lot of talk about information in the business press. According to many sources we are "drowning" in information: it has seeped into all of our business process and now represents both the opportunity of "knowledge management" and the dangers of litigation.

All of this information needs a home. Reading from vendor whitepapers, the information should be stored and backed up into large networked storage tools. It should also be indexed, catalogued, probed, aligned, quantified, evaluated, and fully technologized. All of these functions offer the "value added" of vendor offerings. Perhaps this cost of these solutions comes entirely from the value add.

This reliance on the word "information" is quite stunning. How has such a totalizing discourse emerged? An interesting project would be to explore the discourse surrounding "information" in a mainstream periodical like Wired. My particular interest in information comes from my recent grounding in the novum documentum. Once we get rid of information as a concept, what are we left with? Practices. Social institutions. Documents.

The document part of the content management story is fairly straight forward. Really, there are few differences between the offerings of documentum or Open Text and mainstream records management theory. A trickier question regards practices of e-mail. Why, exactly, do we use e-mail and can we use those insights to get to a more thorough understanding of what we can do for our current information crunch?

At the basic level, we use e-mail to communicate. It's a channel for sending blocks of information (in a more literal sense than that used by most communication scholars). We use it to get things done: to request meetings, to get other documents (solicited or not), to share documents, to request meetings, to maintain friendships. Is it possible to develop a taxonomy of the uses people make of e-mail? Would this sort of thing be beneficial at all in simplifying initiatives for archiving and storing email? I have no idea. Regardless, I'm a quite wary of the overuse of the term "information." Don't get me started on "knowledge"!

"Data" presents a completely different question. One of the drivers for email concerns comes from regulation. Sarbox has been a boon for content management vendors pushing solutions for documents. The other class of vendor that seems to have gotten a lift from SarbOx is business intelligence. The goal of BI products is to aggregate data from a variety of sources and make it both intelligible and informative. BI pulls transaction data-order and receipts-from a variety of different sources to enable a new depth of analysis. BI vendors harp on the SarbOx requirement that public companies report in real time on developments that have a "material impact" on corporate performance. The idea is that BI tools make data entry and reporting both seamless and painless. Imagine the executive who gets the daily update of their sales numbers.

My concern is the nature of this "data." I'm very aware of the social practices of information. In the case of corporate information, executives bring their spreadsheets to end-of-quarter meetings and chew on what the numbers mean. They make their decisions, publish a 10-Q, and the truth has been created (unless they have to restate). The assumption is that this reality existed before the meeting. I disagree. The spreadsheets, the 10-Q, and the meeting were all necessary to create that truth.

The goal/dream of BI vendors and SarbOx is to make that reporting real time. Executives get a constant stream of data pushed to some sort of dashboard. From this dashboard, they make their decision. Of course, the whole hypothesis testing model of western science, engineering, and management dogma is broken, but this consideration seems not to garner much concern. A further consideration is that nature of the underlying data. The collected metrics probably conform to GAAP but GAAP is a socially constructed institution governed by specific historical and temporal considerations. What if the organization is essentially collecting the wrong metrics? Shitty metrics in real time are still shitty metrics. Removing the system check of the quarter end meeting may make these metrics even more damaging.

Having stated my lack of comfort in the stability of accounting systems, I have to admit that they have evolved as very robust systems. Systems of accounting have been around for a long, long time and I have to assume that their current form has stabilized for a reason. Perhaps that's the thesis: documentary forms (including classifications) stabilize in the presence of relatively stable social practices. Disruptions to that practice-imposed by either technological or political innovations-will have a dramatic impact on that documentary form. It sounds good. Unfortunately, it's far from original; Giddens, Yates and Orlikowski, and any number of other researchers were there first!

Now that I've written myself into a hypothesis, I should finish of the tale of SarbOx and BI. SarbOx demands an audit trail of transactions. This transfers into the BI world through the rather mundane functions of ETL: extract, transform, and load. Basically, a BI system aggregates data from a variety of different transaction systems into a data warehouse. This staged data can then be used for analysis. Of importance, however, is "metadata" related to the aggregation. From a SarbOx perspective, the BI system should indicate line-level changes that have occurred between refreshed instances i.e., if someone has altered a transaction, the BI system should be able to indicate who, what, and where. In this case, the actual data change isn't so important as the social reasons for that change: who did it, why they did it, and the context of the change.

Good. I've got some ideas.

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