Information management agility is about being able to deliver the right information to the right people at the right time. But what if there's just so much information that we are caught in a battle trying to find the things that are relevant to achieve our goals? There is a way to get past this information overload and improve findability.

We’ve been hearing about the problem of information overload for years now. The exponential growth of information within our organizations is deemed as so problematic that it negatively affects employee productivity and ultimately results in increased levels of operational costs as a result of an inability to easily sift through it all.

Intranet platforms, like those built on products such as SharePoint, often result in the construction and proliferation of overly complex environments as more users come online and more information is added. A lack of information strategy and governance lessen our ability to mitigate the effects of the sheer volume of content and enterprise search, often seen as the silver bullet, fails to deliver on expectations derived as a result of user experiences acquired through the use of commercial search technologies such as Google. (see two part series on Pursuit of the Google Experience)

The question is however, is it the abundance of the information that is the problem, or a general lack of maturity in approaches to designing effective organization and access mechanisms? In his presentation at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York City, Clay Shirky referred to this idea as “Filter Failure”. He describes information overload as the normal case and that it’s not necessarily the quantity of information that’s the problem, it’s our ability to filter through what’s there that’s the real issue. He goes on to quote Yitzhak Rabin with saying that “if you have the same problem for a long time, maybe it’s not a problem. Maybe it is a fact.” Information overload has been around for a while now so perhaps it’s time we take a step back, regroup and look at it from a slightly different perspective.

Findability Defined

When we think about what it means for an object to be findable, we think about it in terms such as locatable, navigable, discoverable, searchable and in the system sense, retrievable. Peter Morville, in his book Ambient Findability, defines it as “the degree to which a particular object is easy to discover or locate.” Is it however strictly an attribute of the object itself, or should it also include properties for the one who seeks it?

An Object-Centric Perspective

The degree of findability for certain objects within a domain is dependent on the overall importance of that object in the context of the environment in which it lives. At the most basic level, a content item on its own will have inherent attributes that include things like administrative metadata, physical location within the overall structure and the body of content that’s contained within the document itself.

Providing access to the item is dependent on the properties defined. For example, an end-user browsing for a dependent claim form on a company intranet would be required to know the exact location of the document in advance. Finding it via search places a heavy reliance on the search tool’s capability to infer meaning based on the content contained within the document and derived during the indexation process.

Oftentimes, key document types that are global in scope (such as forms) are extracted out from organizational siloes and “bubbled up” to the highest levels of the hierarchy as a way to improve their ability to be found. Lower value information, which often comprises a significant percentage of remaining content, is often lumped together in ad-hoc ways or left buried somewhere deep within the structure leaving users unfamiliar with the overall conceptual framework at a findability disadvantage.

From the object-centric point of view, findability requires that we fully understand and model the objects that need to be found. Identification of those that are of organizational value is critical, and we must not only define what their unique attributes and relationships are, but also establish standard processes for enrichment through the application of well-defined taxonomy and metadata elements. This need also apply to generic content.

An Actor-Centric Perspective

On the other side is the user, or the one that is trying to find the object in the first place. For content that’s not located in an obvious area near the top of the hierarchy, we’re frequently reliant on subject matter experts that typically structure and organize their own information in ways meaningful to them, rather than from the perspective of the consumer, who typically requires a much more simplified view of their world.

Designing successfully for findability from the actor’s perspective requires that we obtain an intimate understanding of our users, the tasks they need to accomplish and the content they need access to. We need to recognize what their goals and motivations are, and what methods they wish to employ to interact with the environment. Once we do, we can then start to design for things like personalization based on individual attributes such as job role or geographic location in ways that are both active (allowing the user to define parameters that result in the pull of information) and passive (surfacing content based on what the system knows about the user).

Designing Effective “Filters” That Promote Findability

Findability in the context of the enterprise is really about connecting people with the right content, at the right time, in the right place in a way that is simplistic and sometimes serendipitous. The only way to really solve the so-called problem of information overload would be to reduce the overall amount of information being created. Since this is an unlikely scenario, we need to shift our perspective from focusing our efforts on what really shouldn’t be viewed as a problem in the first place, to the design of innovative approaches for defining meaningful filters that accurately reflect both the information and those that seek it.

There are many approaches and best practices to solving the Filter problem and, because the scope is often large and complex, it requires consideration of innovative solutions that need to start with the construction of a proper foundation through the development of an Information Management Strategy.

The question posed earlier is of course somewhat of a rhetorical one because it seems that both the object and the seeker of the object hold equal importance in the equation and improving the findability of information within the enterprise needs to be viewed from the perspective of that which needs to be found as well as that which needs to do the finding. Designing for findability must be an active exercise in modeling both our content as well as our users.

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