I know from the start that much of what I am working through will agitate a great number of the people around campus and the world that I consider colleagues. I apologize in advance, but this is territory I want to explore with others.
Today I attended the Penn State Web Conference and left asking new questions about how the information of the academy should be organized … even in that statement I am making the assumption that we should be organizing it. When I step back, I have to ask myself a simple question — what the hell am I asking? Of course we need to organize it — without our attempt to put content into an organized structure we aren’t climbing the curve to information and are certainly stopping short of knowledge … but, to tell you the truth I am now questioning that notion specifically. I am also rethinking the notion of the systems we are asking users to adopt — content management systems. Even the naming of it has become very frustrating to me … the idea that we need to manage content may not be the right approach at all.
I am reading David Weinberger’s new book, Everything is Miscellaneous and am taking from it the idea that information really wants to be free from the structure we attempt to pack it into — as if information is like the silverware we obsessively place into the drawer separated by the little dividing lines. His observation is that digital world shouldn’t be organized in such rigid first or second order structures — that instead it should be allowed to exist as complete thoughts and rearranged and explored based on the users’ needs or the context seekers are approaching it for. From his book:
We can confront the miscellaneous directly in all its unfulfilled glory. We can do it ourselves and, more significantly, we can do it together, figuring out the arrangements that make sense for us now and the arrangements that make sense a minute later. Not only can we find what we need faster, but traditional authorities cannot maintain themselves by insisting that we have to go to them. The miscellaneous order is not transforming only business. It is changing how we think the world itself is organized and — perhaps more important — who we think has the authority to tell us so.
So what. Well, what I am continuing to think about is the institutional knowledge issue I’ve been exploring over the course of the last few weeks. The Web Conference, while very solid, seems to be dwelling on two things — the big problem with managing the web at a large University and the use of content management to fix it. I am starting to think we are all wrong on both counts. I’ll try to make sense of that.
The idea that we can follow a book filled with instructions on how to do information architecture, web design, usability, and so forth may be crazy. The problems are too large to be solved by following a recipe that seems to work for corporate sites that have a focus on selling something — sure you can argue we are selling something and that is true. The problem I see is that we have stakeholder groups that insist on being included, largely can’t effectively participate, and really don’t have the space in their worlds to worry about the problem. Think about the pressures that compete with our primary need (in my mind that is recruiting new students) within the context of a University website — instantly I think about faculty pages, research centers, information for existing students, knowledge bases, externally facing Intranet like pages, class webpages, and so on (and on and on …). Let me just say it, those books don’t exist. I haven’t come across the process for managing that process. The system is too complex to look at it and arrive at an answer that makes them all happy.
The second thing I am concerned about is the almost fanatical need to push a tool as a solution. I am all for content management systems (hell I use them every day), but I am afraid that we will sell them as the solution and that they will lead to unfulfilled promises. The CMS will be part of the answer, but why have we lost our ability to look at the overall system? Not a CMS system, I am talking about taking a systemic view on the issue.
I don’t have the answer, but I spent some time talking to a few people I find very smart and suggested we take a step back and look more closely at what has made Wikipedia successful … I am thinking specifically about the governance models around what does and doesn’t see the light of day. What if we did an exercise that asks a subset of our dozens upon dozens of stakeholders to strip away all the noise around the Institutional webspace and focus only on the handful of critical concepts and directed intense, top down energy on that? Below this threshold, let go of control. Completely. Give the users the right and ability to write what needs to be written — let them easily collaborate, share, edit, tag, and create the information that makes sense. Don’t make them worry about hierarchy and navigation. Let University Relations work with the right people to manage say 100 pages within the Institution’s webspace and then let everyone else manage everything else. Make the stuff we really need to share so obvious that it just works and then just let search lead people to the rest. No idea if it would work, but after listening to and interacting with a couple hundred web professionals today, the current system isn’t cutting it.
My parting thought is if we are actually doing what I suggest, but in a massively inefficient way — everyone chooses their tools, establishes their own processes, and builds their own site maps. How does one make the leap from a massively decentralized process to a massively coordinated decentralized collaborative approach? Wow, I have no idea if any of that made any sense. I need reaction and feedback. If you made it this far, I’ll buy the beer to talk this over.