“Intuitive” Doesn’t Work for Organization

Apple Computer has become the most valuable company on the planet by making products that are “intuitive.” Most Apple fans brag that you don’t even need a user’s manual to get started on their products.

Intuitive is a relative term. With Ipods and Macs, it means that you can figure out commands without guidance. It presumes, however, that you know what the commands are before you start. Turn on. Look through the files. Start. Stop. Reverse. Copy. Save.

Organization isn’t intuitive. How a group of people perform a collective task, or work towards a common goal, has as many intuive approaches as there are participants.

Take filing for example. How many human-hours of productivity are spent looking for a document on the company server? Have you ever had a conversation that goes something like this?

“Where is the ABC proposal? I looked in the marketing files, the customer files, the correspondence files and the presentation files. I can’t find it anywhere.”

“Oh, those are filed in sales commissions under the last name of the salesman handling the account. We don’t open a customer file until the proposal is accepted.”

The next hurdle is often the naming convention for each file. Looking under the saleman’s name you find “Machine Tool Proposal” and “Proposal to Johnson.” Neither is identified by company.

Or you find the supposedly well-organized and documented “Proposal to Johnson,” filed together with “Proposal to Johnson ver 2,” Proposal to Johnson ver 3,” and “Proposal to Johnson April 17.” Which is the one that was sent to the customer? Is April 17 the first one or the last? Or, maybe you need to look further to see if there is one called “Johnson Proposal-final,” or perhaps “ABC Proposal for Johnson?”

The rise of the individual

The power of personal computers has caused two trends in the workplace. First, it encourages employees to “Have it Your Way” in a resurrection of the old BK slogan. Their computer is a part of their personal space. They have their own individual Outlook themes, email rules, and Internet bookmarks. They customize their desktops and screen savers. The personal computer is, after all, personal.

The old centralized computer systems had no provision for individualization. They were regimented. They were organized according to a rigid heirarchy. Employees disclaimed “I am not a computer!”

Now the employee and his or her computer are linked in a weird symbiosis. Even approaches to common tasks are individual. Have you ever tried to rework someone else’s spreadsheet formulae, or reformat a graphic document created by someone else? You almost have to transcend logic, and understand what went on inside the mind of the creator. Often it is easier just to start from scratch.

I know that I’m being a bit “old school.” My staff seldom looks through the files for a document. The improvements in file indexing software make it much easier to just search your drives like you would the Internet. A few key words can bring up what you seek.

The Room of Requirements

That leads to the second problem. The cost of storage capacity has shrunk to a miniscule relative number. Like a house full of closets, our computer drives fill up just because they are there. With indexed search, no one has to look at what is actually in the files, just whether what they need is available. So “Johnson Proposal” quickly returns versions 1 through 79, along with the Jackson Proposals, the specifications for Johnson Wax, and the script for that poor geek in the mailroom from when he asked his online heartthrob for her hand in marriage.

All the searcher needs to do is pick out the one document he or she wants. The rest go back into the pile. I think of the Hogwarts “Room of Requirement” where centuries of broken and discarded items accumulate, only to be found by someone who needs them.

Am I dating myself? Is there something outmoded with liking the clean efficiency of good organization? Perhaps I’m just too slow to adapt, to understand that computing power makes putting things in the right place an anachronism.

What do you think?

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