How should we manage information? How can we get the best information into the hands of those who need it, when they want it?
Too often I have seen information management systems organized along the same boundaries that define the organization rather than along the more intuitive boundaries inherent in the information. Information becomes stove piped in a section’s designated collaboration space – and users outside of the section or organization looking for this information struggle to discover the products/files/folders/etc. that they are looking for. Working in MS SharePoint – I have designed and built a handful of portal sites. Some of these sites were to support only a couple hundred users others were for larger organizations. I learned the hard way by jumping in and breaking things. Based on these experiences I have some advice for those thinking about ways to organize and share information inside their organization.
1) Every element of design should be designed for the end user – the customer of information who may or may not work within your team, section, unit, or organization. Collaborative spaces for teams to share information are important – but they should either be private or they should be housed in an area where content providers do not have to fear about interlopers accessing or mistakenly editing their documents. This does not equate into building a private website for a commander. If a leader wants to go to a site and get all the daily information he or she wants in a single glance that’s great. You do not need to make your site’s homepage that commander’s personnel dashboard. Instead, sit down with the primary folks who generate public facing information and find out from them who their key audiences are and what key products they want people to find. Make the organization of your entire site centered on driving your customers to and from those key sources of information.
2) The three click rule should drive your design. Despite some counter-arguments – the basic idea is that you do not want users to lose patience or interest in navigating your site. I highly recommend buttons or links on your main page that get people to the content they want in under three clicks. The beauty of hyperlinks and of webparts that can cross various content areas is that you can insert those elements into a mainpage and then filter content based on specific rules.
3) Organize the content of your organization based on what you do rather than how you are structured. In a recent portal redesign for a tactical unit – we broke down the typical organization by staff function and instead organized our content based on region and teams working a particular area or problem. We still had staff sections but when a visitor went to our homepage they saw content organized based on what our organization was doing – not based on how it was structured. This helped our information customers intuitively find the content they wanted. This is particularly important when you are working with non-DoD elements.
4) Edit and store your content in one spot – but have it cross-populate your site based on filtered views and metatags. Meta tags work. They help you filter information within your site and aid search engines. When designing our content focused site we found that often the various intelligence posts or shared products posted in a regions area would also be useful for someone interested about operations in general or a team’s current situation. To limit our content providers from having to upload various products to multiple spots we created document libraries where they could drop their files and they would then populate across these various site spaces based on categorical tags they were forced to select. Yes, they were forced to tag their content before uploading it. It added maybe five seconds to their task and it required a bit of mental processing but in the end it enabled a robust means of directing information.
5) Make it as easy as possible on content creators. As illustrated in the previous example we recognized that the folks uploading information to shared portal site often do not have the time nor patience to properly manage the vast amount of information for which they are responsible. Information management is tough. The easier you make it on content providers – by building in intuitive features to your site – with automated features to populating sites and advertising these posts – the more likely your site will maintain and sustain its broader information management goals. Doing this takes some serious thought and a shift in the cultural attitudes about information management. Therefore, you have to get buy-in from whomever is in charge of your information management effort – typically the operations officer.
6) Remember, information never dies– it just fades away… into sub-sites…shared drives…pst files…etc. No matter how hard you work to establish a great information management site – it will require periodic pruning and archiving. Plan this into your design and your work load. People are typically looking for that day/week/month’s latest post. After three months most data is stagnant. After a year it’s probably irrelevant or useless for day-to-day operations. This data still have value though. There will be folks who want to drudge up those old docs, and who knows historians may someday use the freedom of information act to read the many posts of a tactical battalion deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq. Keep this in mind as you shift active content to the archives.
As always – the views in this piece are mine alone and do not represent the U.S. government, Department of Defense, United States Army, or any other organization with which I have had any association.
And – if you are interested in collaborating on this topic please let us know and we’ll get you on our distro.