We’ve mentioned before that computers don’t think the way people do. A simple example of this is that your PC doesn’t understand how to move something. For a typical operating system, a “move file” operation is actually composed of two steps:
delete. The original file is copied from one location to another and then the original is deleted, leaving only the new file in a different place.
That’s all the computer knows. If you ask for the original file, the computer tells you it doesn’t exist. As far as it’s concerned, it might never have existed. Maybe you got the name wrong. Maybe you got the folder wrong. Maybe you imagined it. All you’ll get in response from the computer is
Bad Command or Filename, the computer equivalent of saying “Dunno, boss” and shrugging.
Keep in mind that the computer’s not trying to be unhelpful; it just doesn’t know what happened. It sees the world differently than we do. The way it moves things is not how things move in the real world.
If this sort of thing happened in real life, the document lying on your desk might suddenly vanish in a flash of light, and a new document might materialize out of thin air in the conference room.
Are they the same? If you walked into the conference room and picked up the new document, how could you tell if it was the same as the one that vanished?
You’d have to search your memory to figure out whether this new document matches up to what you remember of the document that left your office under mysterious circumstances.
This is exactly the problem that computers face all the time. Without going through the system logs, or comparing a system backup to the current state of the system, there’s really no way for your computer to know whether the document in the conference room was the same as the one on the desktop, whether it was a different version of the same document, or whether it was a different document altogether.
Now imagine that you’d told Sally, a coworker, about the document on your desk. After the mysterious document transfer operation, she walks into your office to have a look at it. But it’s not there anymore. It vanished without a trace. She’s got three options: First, she can assume you threw it out and the file is no longer available. Second, she can assume you moved it somewhere. She could begin searching the entire building for it. Third, she can wait until you get back to your office and then ask you what happened to it.
The third option is what most organizations rely on today. Sally might have a peek into your office to see if the file’s there, and if it isn’t, she’d send you an email to ask about it. Most of the time, though, she saves herself a walk down the hall and just sends the email. Since you’re the only person on the planet that knows the file mysteriously reappeared in the conference room, she’ll have to wait until you get back to your computer to find out what happened. Then you can reply to her email with this amazing story of the disappearing-reappearing weekly sales report.
You can almost hear her voice on the other end of the phone now, “Uh huh. Magic. Really. That’s great. Look, just send me the figures, OK? I need them right away.”
But again, how do you know — and how will Sally know — that the document you found in the conference room is the right one, or the right version of the right one? You don’t. You’ll both just have to hope that it’s the same.
The next day, when Pete reviews the numbers in the team meeting, he looks at the paper Sally handed to him. He shakes his head. “I’m pretty sure I updated these yesterday.” You’re just about to tell him this absolutely amazing story when Sally glares at you and kicks you from under the table. Another lousy day at the office…
The story highlights three critical information management problems:
1. Tracking documents.
2. Versioning documents.
3. Locating documents.
Since computers aren’t doing these things for us, we have to figure out ways of doing them by hand. As most of us discovered decades ago, email solves the second problem fairly well. Every email is date-stamped with the time it was sent and the time it was received, so you’ve got a good idea of how recent the attached documents are.
Email partially answers the third problem; if you can remember to whom you sent a document, they might be able to retrieve it for you using whatever memory aids they find effective. Sure, using email for this purpose is slow and annoying for both you and your coworkers —
“Hey, uh, could you send me that presentation again? I can’t seem to find it…” —
“Oh – I think it’s in my Sent Items…”
…but it seems to work a fair amount of the time.
That leaves the first problem, for which email is almost totally ineffective. Once you send a document out, there’s no telling who it could be forwarded to, or when you’d get a reply back, or whether you’ve actually gotten a reply back to an older message with an out-of-date copy of an attachment, and so on.
All three problems can be summed up in one short phrase: paper shuffling. Paper shuffling is the bane of the knowledge worker’s existence: It’s tedious, boring, tiresome drudge-work. This is not what your well-educated, well-paid creative staff were hired to do. It’s not what knowledge workers want to do. Yet lots of their time is spent doing it.
Recent studies claim that knowledge workers spend more than a quarter of their time in email applications. How much of that time is spent on fixing the three problems above?
And all because our current computer operating systems don’t understand basic operations like move.