Monday, January 26, 2015

File Share Triage: 1

I recently returned from a consulting engagement in which we were attempting to address file share issues, primarily through the introduction of document management. Some thoughts:

1. Why file shares are a mess

1.1 Too much stuff

There is too much stuff for a file share to contain. Humans are, by nature, hoarders. We are the product of eons of evolution in which stuff was very hard to come by so it made sense to hold to what little we could. This behavior has largely been condemned. Dante's fourth circle of Hell, for example, is dedicated to Hoarders and Wasters. Hoarding disorder is now included in the DSM. But where could it have come from?

We have to recognize that stuff has never been cheaper than it is right now. Consider that in the dark ages, a shirt would have cost the equivalent of $3500:

"So, 7 hours for sewing, 72 for weaving, 400 for spinning, or 479 hours total to make one shirt. At minimum wage - $7.25 an hour - that shirt would cost $3,472.75. And that's just a standard shirt. And that's not counting the work that goes into raising sheep or growing cotton and then making the fiber fit for weaving. Or making the thread for the sewing. And you'd still need pants (tights or breeches) or a skirt, a bodice or vest, a jacket or cloak, stockings, and, if at all possible, but a rare luxury, shoes."

The innovations of the industrial revolution addressed some of these issues but the problem persisted into modern times:

"Even in 1800, a farm woman would be lucky to own three dresses - one for best and the other two for daily living. Heck, my mother, in 1930, went to college with that exact number of dresses to her name... This is why old clothing is rare: even the wealthy passed their old clothes on to the next generation or the poorer classes. The poor wore theirs until it could be worn no more, and then it was cut down for their children, and then used for rags of all kinds, and then, finally, sold to the rag and bone man who would transport it off to be made into (among other things) paper."

Things are very different now. A recent BBC magazine piece gives us some numbers:

"Consider the average British woman. According to various surveys, she buys 59 items of clothing each year, she has twice as many things in her wardrobe today as she did in 1980, and she has 22 things in there she has never worn."

It would have been economically impossible to collect clothing like this for most of human history.


This situation is particularly acute with electronic artifacts since they are non-rivalrous (i.e., the use of the object by one individual does not limit another from similarly using and benefiting the object). Furthermore, the cost of storing and managing these objects is ridiculously low. Robert Hooke, for example, paid 35 shillings for Bockler's Theatrum machinarum, or about 2% of his gross income in the late 1600s! Regardless of the accounting, that cost is certainly more expensive than the limitless reproduction we see on file shares.

1.2 Too little organization

File shares are almost always a problem due to a lack of organization. Parts of a file share might be organized, but not all of it. We see a variety of different organizational structures that persist for various lengths of times. Individual users will sort document by file types (e.g., "forms"), or by time, or -- very occasionally -- by process. These different organizational structures might work for a period of time by they are eventually superseded.

A file share is essentially a commons. A variety of different people use its resources and contribute to its ultimate usage and success. But why would some store documents at all? Why do people keep stuff?

Whittaker's ARIST review on personal information management summarizes the literature on personal information keeping. Basically, people keep a lot of information (and have difficulty in culling their collections) because they can't accurately identify the potential value of that information. Furthermore, there is little visible cost associated with keeping it.

That's not to say that there isn't a cost. The costs, however, are typically bourne by someone else (e.g., IT) or represent something non-quantifiable (e.g., ediscovery costs). A described by Prospect Theory, a knowledge worker is driven by loss-aversion so is unwilling to get rid of documents and information.

This "preservation bias" is really unaffected by organizational method. Pilers are generally as inefficient as filers. In reality, most retained information is never accessed again. Personal data generally contain 49% unique data (notes, completely projects, legal documents); 15% completely unread documents; and another 36% that represent copies of publicly available information.

People keep these doucments for a variety of reasons, typically related to:

  • Availability -- keeping things on hand
  • Reminding -- prompting action associated with a document
  • Trust -- addressing worry that the document might get lost or misplaced
  • Sentimentality

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