A recent (September 2021) Verge post titled ‘File Not Found‘ by Monica Chin (@mcsquared96) noted how pre-defined storage locations for digital content have become mostly redundant for the younger generation that grew up using Google to find content – ‘the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.’
The post resonated for two specific reasons:
- The way people create and access content in the modern digital environment, especially how they do this out of the office on mobile devices.
- The enduring ‘requirement’ in many organisations to create pre-defined aggregations to store records, with an expectation that end-users will voluntary and consistently store content in those aggregations.
In my opinion, there is a fundamental clash between these two things in the modern digital world.
It reminds me of the transition to Web 2.0 from around 15 years ago. The ‘semantic web’ changed the way we interacted with the internet.
According to the University of Melbourne in a blog post in 2008, ‘Web 2.0 is the term used to describe a variety of web sites and applications that allow anyone to create and share online information or material they have created. A key element of the technology is that it allows people to create, share, collaborate and communicate. Web 2.0 differs from other types of websites as it does not require any web design or publishing skills to participate, making it easy for people to create and publish or communicate their work to the world.’
Fast forward ten years, and end-users can do just that, creating and publishing as much web content as they like through a host of apps, none of which requires a pre-defined folder structure to manage the content.
Is this the future for the modern digital office?
Aggregate or collate?
Expecting end-users to capture all digital content about the same subject in pre-defined aggregations has been a challenge since computers first appeared in the workplace. The fact that email systems have always been physically separate from other digital content stored on file shares didn’t help.
Organisations attempted to resolve this dilemma, with varying degrees of success, through ‘controlled’ folder structures on file shares, or acquiring EDM/ERM systems.
The success of these models was (and remains) often linked to the degree of compliance required by regulators, or the penalties for non-compliance. That is, the best document and records management systems were usually (and continue to be) in organisations that had a high compliance requirement. Everything else was about managing risk (and reputation).
The reality, for most organisations, is that not all relevant digital content is (or can be) captured in pre-defined aggregations. Some of the key ‘missing’ content may include emails, text and chat messages, content created in ‘personal’ spaces, and content not created using corporate systems. This is why FOI and discovery requests inevitably involve asking end-users to locate and produce relevant content.
So, it is just a waste of time to try to aggregate (some) digital records?
I think there is still a comfortable place for the creation and management of content in pre-defined aggregations, where it makes sense to do so and/or there is a specific compliance requirement to do this AND it works.
But, with some exceptions, pre-defined aggregations have a key shortcoming – they may not capture all digital content. Yahoo attempted to categorise the internet from 1994 (as ‘Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web’), when the reality was that most people preferred the simple Google search bar – without worrying about how the information may be have been aggregated or collated.
The modern workplace is heading in a similar direction. The illusion that all related digital content, of whatever type or format, can be grouped in pre-defined aggregations makes no sense. There is simply too much digital content and a lot of it cannot even be copied to or saved to a single aggregation point. Phone text messages have always been a case in point here.
What makes more sense, like Web 2.0, is to use technology to automatically find the connections between disparate digital objects and collate them in a way that makes sense in the context we want to see it. We already see this model in many online platforms that draw on our digital exhaust (and possibly our voices) to work out our interests or potential interests.
The digital office
The 2 November 2021 announcement of a range of updates to the Microsoft office.com portal, ‘Creating a hub for your content with office.com‘, is consistent with the need to address changing patterns of work and the shift away from pre-defined aggregations as the primary method of storing and finding all relevant content. Instead, the focus is on ease of creation, quick access to content that is relevant to the use based on their digital activities, search, and recommended actions.
As noted already, this new approach does not remove the requirement to create pre-defined aggregations; it simply needs to be understood that these may only contain some of the content or records. The rest may remain stored in email accounts or other systems, in many cases out of reach (thanks to access controls) to the people who may want to see it.
However, behind the scenes, the Microsoft Graph makes use of this information (‘signals’) to draw inferences and make recommendations including for content that the end-user can access. For example, Fred and Mary may chat in Teams or exchange emails about a given subject, but Fred is unaware that Mary is working on a document that he has access to. The Graph works out that this may be of interest to Fred and recommends it to him.
Microsoft 365 provides the capability to recommend content and, with products like Viva Topics, has the ability to automatically group relevant content beyond the scope of pre-defined aggregations.
It may not be able, or ever need, to completely replace pre-defined aggregations, but it is heading in the direction to make that scenario increasingly more likely.