Ask anyone who works in an organization and they'll tell you: managing business information well is a struggle. This is true for structured data (like customer, product or transaction information in enterprise systems), but even more so for unstructured data, e.g., the innumerable documents to be found piling up everywhere in an organization. And no matter what new technological advances get introduced or governance frameworks get published or industry group gets created, managing documents well appears to be getting harder and harder and we seem to be getting worse and worse at it.

The Day the Document Management Died

How did we get here and why are things so bad with document management at most organizations? I believe, after intensive study and analysis, that I've found the precise moment when everything became unhinged and started hurtling down the twisted, rocky road to document management perdition we're currently on: the day we fired the file clerks.

You remember them, right? The people who knew where all the documents were, would retrieve them for you, put them away when you were done with them and scold you when you forgot to bring them back? The people who owned the corporate metadata and made sure that it was on every document; the people whose job it was to care about information organization and findability.

And we fired them … why, exactly?

We fired them because in a world of electronic documents, we thought we could save money by getting rid of a "paper" function to allow users direct access to all corporate information, pulsing in electronic signals on every desktop. We were empowering end users to organize their content however made sense to them -- what could be easier? No more intermediary between you and your information, no more metadata standards to memorize in order to request your documents. Just a direct connection between users and information. Who wouldn't want that?

A Simple Plea 

And it would have been great if that's what we got. But it turns out that what we got instead was an electronic file room with no file room clerks -- or rather, we all became file room clerks. Except we had no training, no particular aptitude and no guidance on how to do that job. So, like a closed stack library suddenly opened to the public with no rules for how to manage the volumes, our electronic file room became a digital landfill, a dumping ground for more documents than we could ever use, in no particular order, that we struggle to work with.

If you don't believe me, just ask anyone who's been in heavy industry (oil and gas, mining, construction, etc.) 30 plus years what it was like in a 100 percent paper world and they'll tell you: you could find everything pretty easily. And now, more than likely their organization struggles to find the basic drawings and other documents they need to efficiently operate their assets.

Oh, and beyond the impact to operations, the money we saved by firing the file room clerks has been lost countless times over by pushing that lower paid work onto far more highly paid employees, like engineers, sales people, designers, lawyers and so on.

So I'll end this post with a plea to bring back the file room clerks to help us manage our vast electronic file rooms, to own the responsibility for organizing our shared drives, SharePoint sites, EFSS systems, ECM repositories, even email. The time we could give back to our employees to do their real jobs, the increased effectiveness of those jobs due to having the right information at the right time, and the increased quality of life for everyone involved would be astounding.

Who's with me?​

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  jurvetson