Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Glory of the Hunt

People care about their files. They are attached to the personal systems they put in place to find what they need, and become anxious if they are taken away. The file system is guarded territory, as fiercly protected as a parking stall.

It became clear years ago that it is not enough, as a records professional to build a pure filing system - elegant in design and intuitive to use. If I have not engaged the very human customers where they work and live, the system will fail.

Quoting google advanced help, "Search engines use a variety of techniques to imitate how people think and to approximate their behavior. As a result, most rules have exceptions. For example, the query [ for better or for worse ] will not be interpreted by Google as an OR query, but as a phrase that matches a (very popular) comic strip. Google will show calculator results for the query [ 34 * 87 ] rather than use the 'Fill in the blanks' operator. Both cases follow the obvious intent of the query." This means rather than being straightforward, search support services spend a lot of time getting inside the heads of searchers, to help them get the results they want (not what they say they want).

So how do we stow away and find things? It could be that our personal classification systems and style of hunting (foraging) are as established as our hunter-gatherer brains. Web and corporate Enterprise Content Management (ECM) systems have vastly extended our reach, but our searching instincts have not changed.

I will suggest that classifying and searching, tagging and recalling successful hunts, are part of our instinctive heritage. Steven Pinker in his book the Language Instinct, proposes fifteen instincts that are hard-wired in to all of us. Two of these instincts relate to searching and classifying:

4. Mental maps for large territories.

11. A mental Rolodex; a database of individuals, with blanks for kinship, status or rank, history of exchange of favors, and inherent skills and strengths, plus criteria that valuate each trait.

Imagining our forbear's steps, I imagined my ancestor following a familiar trail, noting edible plants along the way. She would retrace her steps later, when she knew the harvest would be ready; wild carrots in the summer, cattail tubers in the fall, and rose hips through the winter. She would have identified and classifed the edible plants, and remembered the trail to get there.
I couldn't find a comparable image on my google search, so I scanned my own, I did learn a little about the foraging habits of water pipits, larval green lacewings, and modern human urban foragers.   
So in many ways, classifying and searching is instinctive. We care about the results of the hunt, and not just for the practical purpose of getting the job done. This is personal.

You know what I am talking about. Anyone in our business will have hit a tough search that evades early detection. We dig in ever harder, searching out the obscure places where it might have been put. To place that record in our bosses hands, sweet.
The hunt is valued. A swift and successful hunt gives value to the organization. A hunter who provides consistent results is an asset; not just from an empirical, practical point of view, but at an instinctive, visceral level. I suggest again that if the GARP(C) principles were to be ranked, Availability is at the top. Not so say that the rest may be discarded. Together, they complete the framework for a robust records system.

When converting to a new file structure, be respectful of people's need to find their stuff. Anticipate the anxiety that accompanies change, and prepare for it. Make sure they have time to orient themselves to the new system, and reassure them that the materials they need daily will be at hand.