Surviving an Information Avalanche

Although a systematic filing structure potentially makes information more accessible, studies of real-world document collections show that categorization schemas are far less stable. Problems generally fall into the following categories:


17 December 2009

AvalancheIn today’s world, we are required to process more information from an increasing number of sources in order to make sound decisions. How can we survive this information avalanche?

Organize your information

Both professionals and consumers alike tend to organize their digital information in hierarchies because computer filing systems impose a hierarchical structure of folders. Document location serves as the main organizing principle. Additional restrictions — e.g. a document should appear in only one location — then forces users to come up with strict categorization of document types.

Although a systematic filing structure potentially makes information more accessible, studies of real-world document collections show that categorization schemas are far less stable. Problems generally fall into the following categories:

  1. Filing documents: Example: A document can only be filed in one location but it may be relevant to multiple activities. (Worse yet, imagine a scenario where a user who is filing a document does not know or care enough to define a hierarchy.)
  2. Managing documents: Backups and document access controls can impose burdensome restrictions on structure, making the file hierarchy more complex and harder to understand/support.
  3. Finding documents: In most systems, documents can be only be filed under one criterion but retrieved according to a different one. Search functions addresses this problem only partially.

The problem becomes worse when documents need to be shared. A single, inflexible hierarchical structure that makes sense for one publisher of documents can be quite different from the structure that the viewer of the document would come up with.

Folder HierarchiesFolder hierarchy examples, from http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/data/library/techarticle/dm-0512graciano/index.html

For documents shared across organizations, properties related to users and groups are becoming even more important. The Intralinks platform addresses this business requirement with new capabilities: facets, smart folders and filters to name just a few. So far Intralinks has developed this functionality based mostly on document properties but we are currently working on ways to provide our clients with even more granular controls over the information that they exchange.

Other businesses are also developing features that address document and information storage and control. One of the most interesting is by Xerox PARC — a solution called placeless documents. The idea is to use specific properties of each document to manage and find them.

Properties can include details about the document itself (title, expiration date) as well as a user or group-specific properties (marked as important/deleted/favorite by a given user or group). Such properties can be used by groups to split the work on document collections, identify critical documents to be reviewed in a given group, or just to mark documents as read or unread in context of this group.

All of these properties can be used to provide alternative ways of navigating documents for different user roles or groups.