Librarian vs. Archaeologist


Michael Schrage writes at the HBR blog that getting organized is mostly a waste of time:

When it comes to investing time, thought and effort into productively organizing oneself, less is more. In fact, not only is less more, research suggests it may be faster, better and cheaper.

IBM researchers observed that email users who "searched" rather than set up files and folders for their correspondence typically found what they were looking for faster and with fewer errors. Time and overhead associated with creating and managing email folders were, effectively, a waste.

Six years ago, I would have disagreed with Schrage: I recommended that people embrace their inner Linnaeus and set up elaborate folder structures for their electronic files and their email. The goal was a comprehensive taxonomy that would allow people to locate any message in seconds. But when Google desktop can find anything within .03 seconds, why bother taking the time to do all of this organizing? Yes, you'll have to cull through some irrelevant results, but the time you spend sorting the informational wheat from the chaff is far less than the time you'd spend painstakingly cataloging and filing each individual message and file. (And that's assuming that you don't mistakenly put the Henderson invoice in the Hernandez folder; then it's gone forever.)

As Schrage points out, this approach is actually very much in keeping with lean thinking, insofar as we're moving from a "push" approach to information management -- organize now, whether or not you need it -- to a "pull" approach -- organize and sort your information when you need to find it.

What Schrage doesn't address is the reality that not all of our information is electronic and suitable for search. There's no Google search for carpet swatches and spec sheets, Etruscan pottery fragments, or pathology samples. There's also no random search for plenty of publications that aren't digitized. For these things, there really is value to "getting organized."

Even when information is electronic, sometimes it's easier to organize it than to search for it. My wife, for example, handles the scheduling for the 13 interventional radiologists in her section. Each month she sends an email to her colleagues asking them if they have any vacation requests, conference commitments, or other scheduling issues she needs to account for. She'll get responses like this:

"I'll be at the ASCO conference from Jan 22-26." "I'm taking my kids skiing from Jan 20-24." "I'm visiting Dana Farber Cancer Center Jan 18-19." "I'm taking a couple days off from Jan 25-28."

With no keywords, there's no way to search her mail for these messages. And the messages can't even be threaded, because people don't always respond to her original email. As a result, she keeps distinct mail folders to handle scheduling requests as they come in.

I think the organized vs. disorganized dichotomy is a false one. Your information takes many forms, and requires different treatment. Sometimes it's better to be a librarian , and sometimes it's better to be an archaeologist. The method you take depends on the problem you're trying to solve. That's real lean thinking.

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