Information Ecosystems


Question: Everyone’s using Google Docs or Confluence to manage their projects and write help files, but nobody can find anything. I have 2 weeks to fix it. How would you tackle something like this?

I have yet to see a place with a coherent information architecture based solely on Google Docs. If it exists, they ain’t talking. Mostly people either pretend it’s coherent already, or that they don’t need no stinkin’ coherence, because they’re nimble and can think on their feet.

I’ve noticed a trend where a company sets a bunch of engineers loose on a problem and expects them to self-organize. Which they do, after a fashion, in all sorts of marvellously ingenious and makeshift ways. Then after a year, they realize that everyone has stored half-finished documents across an improvised, lightweight, multilayered ecosystem that includes just about every free cloud service out there, plus chat programs, sticky notes, free blogging platforms, whiteboards, plus everyone’s personal computers and smart phones.

“No one can find anything!” they cry. “Everything’s seat-of-the-pants!” Well, wasn’t that the POINT?

Then they scratch their heads a bunch, and eventually someone says, “I know… we’ll hire a tech writer for a couple of weeks to come in and make it all better!”

In Google Docs, everything displays graphically as folder icons, and you can’t see multiple layers down all at once. It’s an information jungle, minus the carnivorous plants. Since so many people have personal Google accounts, it’s now possible to write all your stuff and share individual files at work without remembering who’s the actual owner. People often name things in their own idiosyncratic way, making it harder to search for things.

A lot of these information ecosystems aren’t actually written down anywhere. It’s in people’s heads, and in their informal relationships with one another. Redundancy and multiple versions of the same information are another thorny challenge.

Confluence is a system that, while it’s not “self-organizing” by any means, still has the potential for orderliness with proper stewardship. However, combining Confluence with Google Docs and other “free” services often means that no one knows where anything is, or even that certain resources exist. I don’t think a tech writer can fully resolve this situation.

From what I know about sprawling information ecosystems, if it’s been around more than a few weeks, and has more than about 20 pages of content, it could take longer than 2 weeks to figure it out, and definitely longer than 2 weeks to get people to adopt your new method. In fact, it could literally take… forever… (cue the ominous music).

I think that you have to assess everyone’s level of motivation before taking something like this on, either as a project or as a permanent assignment. Sometimes the people controlling the budget are higher-ups who don’t feel the pain, and they’ll only allow for a few weeks of your time.

If your team is really in constant agony, you might get some gratitude, which could translate into valuable assistance and knowledge sharing. You’ll have to deliver some sort of result within 2-3 weeks, so think carefully about your first project and try to nail it quickly. Make sure it’s something that is immediately useful. Oftentimes, cheat sheets or other simple aids that cut down on confusion right away are better than elaborate re-orgs where you get lost in the weeds along with everyone else.

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