Search, Don’t Sort

Where were we now? Oh yes, collaboration. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a break from that word. To that end, I’m going to stop saying the C-word for a while (I’m still saying “Colludo” though ~ singing it, actually).

In my last post, I discussed the importance of search in … um, working with others on documents. Essentially, I suggested that you need a search solution in order to find the documents you need. In order to do your job, you need to find documents quickly, with minimal effort. Also, other team members require the same search experience.

There are many ways to get a great search experience, but I think the most compelling way is via Office 365. In future posts, Sheena and I will seek to flesh out some great real-world O365 scenarios. For now, I want to keep this discussion very high-level (conceptual).

Now, you may not be convinced that search is an all-important tool for document-based work. Perhaps you are of the “sort” variety. It’s ok if you are, I think we all are a bit of both.

What does it mean to sort?

In the old days, when we worked exclusively with paper, documents were sorted into folders and folders were sorted into filing cabinets (some people used binders too). This sorting technique worked for paper documents and the structure itself made documents easier to find. But this sorting structure is a skeuomorph that doesn’t work consistently when imposed on electronic files.

In today’s office setting (the digital world), this sorting exercise can take much more time than it’s worth. I think anyone who uses a computer can relate to these scenarios:

  1. New emails arrive and you sort them out into different subfolders in Outlook (or you email client of choice). Perhaps you sort by project, or sender, or even down to the task level (i.e. some emails go into this folder for things I need to look at next month or next quarter while items requiring my immediate attention will stay in the inbox until I have time to follow-up). Then, when you need to find something, you traverse or “crawl” your subfolders. Sometimes the hierarchy can become quite intricate with subfolders upon subfolders. Finding what you are looking for can take time.
  2. Documents stored in a fileshare are also sorted in folders and subfolders in some meaningful way. Perhaps folders are created by division, business unit, project, etc. Again, when you need to find something, you need to walk through the “tree” of folders to find what you need. This can be an even more difficult proposition in a shared scenario (i.e. fileshare). What if someone else built the hierarchy of folders? Perhaps they don’t think the same way you do. This can make finding what you are looking for that much more difficult.

We all look for things in different ways due to the basic fact that we all think differently. An organisational hierarchy that makes sense to me might not make sense to you. This presents a significant barrier to document “findability”.

Of course, that makes sense in scenario two, but what of scenario one? Well, even if you created the folder hierarchy in your mailbox, you may forget why you chose to label folder A the way you labelled it. Also, sometimes divisions get blurry and an email/document may well fit in more than one place. Those cases, where a document fits in more than one place, make finding your work especially troublesome.

Furthermore, document repositories get messy over time. Direction changes in your business and these changes influence how you sort your work. With more and more documents entering the repository (email/fileshare) every day, the effort that goes into sorting and maintaining a meaningful document storage structure becomes ever more challenging and resource intensive.

So, I beseech you to search rather than sort. Documents most definitely require some organisation around them, but I suggest that it is more efficient to find documents by keyword search than by manually traversing some large hierarchy of folders. The internet has taught us this basic lesson (or perhaps Google taught us this). Search is powerful, quick, and relatively easy to use.

What do you think? Is it practical to sort? Do you have the tools in hand to conduct effective “internal to your org” document search? Or, is search just something you do online?

Next time, I will aim to discuss some “human rules” around working together with documents.