Folders uninterrupted – the enduring problem of folders

In September 2014 I presented to the Records and Information Management Professionals Australasia (RIMPA)’s annual conference in Adelaide, South Australia, on the subject of folders and how it is possible to manage digital content differently using products like SharePoint.

Last week a couple of people in completely different parts of the company I work for demonstrated clearly the problem of folders on Outlook and network drives. The first had at least 100 folders and sub-folders in her Outlook where she said she ‘filed’ everything so she could find it again. The other person showed me a newly created section of the network drives with hundreds of new folders and sub-folders set up by someone who didn’t like or get the existing agreed folder structure that has been in place for many years.

In both cases I asked the same question – how do you find anything? The answer, in most cases, is that the person clicks on folder names that they created or are familiar with, until they find what they are looking for. Search was usually relegated to last ditch attempt to find things but was not considered to be very helpful or accurate. Both individuals lamented the duplication of information in folders, duplication they often didn’t know about until the inevitable clash of versions that occurs regularly.

At a workshop/presentation I did for another organisation recently, I was told that the organisation relied heavily on what are called ‘titling conventions’ to enable the information to be found. That is, the names of files, folders and documents follow a pre-defined model.

In reply to my comment that such titling was surely less valuable when you could search for the content in their document management system, I was advised that they didn’t yet have the ability to search by the content of documents (a resource issue). They could only search for content based on titles, once again reinforcing the need for folders (with unambiguous and consistent titles) to find that information.

Breaking the habit

I have said many times, folders are a very hard habit to break. Given the generally poor ability to search and find content in email and network drives (and in some EDRM systems – still), search is relegated to second place and folders and pre-defined titling conventions continue to dominate where content searching is not available.

For at least fifteen years, working across a range of organisations, I have had the ability to search within the content of digital records. This includes being able to search for the content of scanned documents that have been subject to OCR or optical character recognition. In this digital age I’d be very disappointed if the only way I could find content was by navigating labyrinthine folder structures on email or network drives.

I have fewer than five sub-folders under my work email inbox. I use those additional folders to route specific content such as junk mail, SharePoint notifications or personal email. I don’t save anything to a network drive and only use SharePoint to store and retrieve records and other corporate information. Why? Because search is really good.

I know this is not common practice around the organisation. Common practice is to create and maintain multiple folders and squirrel useful content away in network drive folders. It’s been that way for 30 years.

I don’t think folders are going to vanish from the landscape anytime soon – they are no more as unlikely to vanish in the next 10 years as email, although both are slowly morphing over time into something different, particularly as ‘collaboration’ tools, search, and the presentation of information via analytics engines are introduced.

Content finds you

Facebook and Google are successful for a reason – they both present content (including advertising) relevant to the user based on her or his digital content. A simple analogy is to compare the corner store where you know you can go to get milk with the ability of digital devices to remind a user they need to buy a specific type of milk because (a) their internet linked refrigerator has noticed that milk is running low and (b) they regularly post to social media (or even in a single email) about their preference for this type of milk. It’s creepy, but it works .

Many contemporary office environments are not much different – users know they find their digital content in the folders (the little corner stores) they created or have learned about. But they don’t know how much other interesting or directly relevant content is there and they don’t bother looking because they know it will be a poor and time-wasting experience.

They don’t know what they don’t know.

My experience over the past five years with SharePoint (and with similar products before it) is that users are resistant to ‘having’ to store documents in a different location to what they are used to (i.e. network drives).

Users worry their content will be lost, it’s ‘yet another place’ to store and find content, and the user experience (compared with folders) is alien. This doesn’t stop them consigning endless information to social media and being the recipients of targeted advertising and suggested friends based on their content. The difference between the two is so extraordinarily different it is sometimes hard to believe that users do this, checking in on Facebook’s content-driven feed while ‘navigating’ through endless folders, many with names that are about as vague as you can get.

Where is this heading

In the last weeks Microsoft has outlined what is sees as the future of the office and their Office. Three key elements of that future are:

  • SharePoint (on-premises and online) and OneDrive. These two will not replace folders completely but will give users a much better (and more importantly, more mobile) experience with storing and finding content.
  • Office 365 Groups. Groups of people who have a common interest and can communicate across platforms, whether it be via email or other collaboration tools including SharePoint or Yammer.
  • Analytics as the way we will harness and access our information, via interfaces like Delve that serves up relevant information based on the user’s digital content. Just like Facebook.

Does Delve deliver on the ‘Semantic Office’?

Many years ago I wrote on this blog about what I called at the time the ‘Semantic Office’. In that article I asked whether we will one day experience a time when we can truly harness the digital content in our business systems to link and present relevant information to users based on the same methods found on the internet at that time (for example in eBay, Amazon etc).

I think Microsoft has finally figured this out with Delve. My guess is that, by 2020, Delve or a version of it will be the most common ways users first access their content.

So where does this leave folders?

Folders aren’t going to go away anytime soon. I’d like to think that Microsoft took a close look at how they could deprecate folders in email and drives and realised that this was akin to giving up on email – it wasn’t going to happen.

Instead, Microsoft decided to introduce new tools that can capture and – more importantly, perhaps – present information in completely different ways that digital natives expect and even take for granted. As someone said recently, when a large group of young people were asked to send an email, many responded with ‘what’s email, why can’t I Inbox you?’.

Change is happening, slowly, along with the culture shift that must accompany it. For every older ‘paper native’ worker that retires, a younger digital native commences work in the workforce, bringing with them new expectations both in terms of work experience and tools they use.

Just like the clacking of manual typewriters in offices was eventually replaced by the slightly smoother sound of electronic typewriters, and then the click-clack of keyboards hooked to the back of computers, the silent touch screens of the future will eventually dominate and then themselves be replaced by something else.

Habits are hard to break, but change happens.

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