71 Defining and Scoping the Organizing System Domain

The most fundamental decision for an organizing system is defining its domain, the set or type of resources that are being organized. This is why “What is Being Organized?(“What Is Being Organized?”) was the first of the design decisions we introduced in Foundations for Organizing Systems.

We refine how we think about an organizing system domain by breaking it down into five interrelated aspects:

  1. the scope and scale of the collection

  2. the number and nature of users

  3. the time span or lifetime over which the organizing system will operate

  4. the physical or technological environment in which the organizing system is situated

  5. the relationship of the organizing system to other ones that overlap with it in domain or scope

Addressing these issues is a prerequisite for prioritizing requirements for the organizing system, proposing the principles of its design, and implementing the organizing system.

Scope and Scale of the Collection

The scope of a collection is the dominant factor in the design of an organizing system, because it largely determines the extent and complexity of the resource descriptions needed by organizing principles and interactions (“Scope, Scale, and Resource Description”). The impact of broad scope arises more from the heterogeneity of the resources in a collection than its absolute scale. It takes more effort to manage a broad and large collection than a narrow and small one; it takes less effort to manage a large collection if it has a narrow scope. A cattle ranch can get by with just one worker for every thousand cows, unlike zoos, which typically have a small number of instances of many types of animals. A zoo needs many more workers because each animal type and sometimes even individual animals can have distinct requirements for their arrangement and care.

Consider a business information system being designed to contain millions of highly structured and similar instances of a small number of related resource types, such as purchase orders and their corresponding invoices.[1] The analysis to determine the appropriate properties and principles for resource description and organization is straightforward, and any order or invoice is an equally good instance to study.[2]

Contrast this large but very narrow collection with a small but very broad one that contains a thousand highly variable instances of dozens of different resource types. This heterogeneity makes it difficult to determine if an instance is representative of its resource type, and every resource might need to be analyzed. This variability implies a large and diverse set of resource descriptions where individual resource instances might not be described with much precision because it costs too much to do it manually (“Resource Description by Professionals”). We can extrapolate to understand why organizing systems whose resource collections are both broad and deep, like those of Amazon or eBay, have come to rely on machine learning techniques to identify description properties and construct resource taxonomies (“Automated and Computational Resource Description”, “Categories Created by Clustering”).[3]

A partial remedy or compromise when the resource instances are highly dissimilar is to define resource types more broadly or abstractly, reducing the overall number of types. We illustrated this approach in “Principles Embodied in the Classification Scheme” when we contrasted how kitchen goods might be categorized broadly in a department store but much more precisely in a wholesale kitchen supply store. The broader categories in the department store blur many of the differences between instances, but in doing so yield a small set of common properties that can be used to describe them. Because these common properties will be at a higher level of abstraction, using them to describe resources will require less expertise and probably less effort (“Scope, Scale, and Resource Description”, “Category Abstraction and Granularity”). However, this comes at a cost: Poets, painters, composers, sculptors, technical writers, and programmers all create resources, but describing all of them with a “creator” property, as the Dublin Core requires, loses a great deal of precision.

Challenges caused by the scale of a collection are often related to constraints imposed by the physical or technological environment in which the collection exists that limit how large the collection can be or how it can be organized. (See “Organizing Physical Resources”) Only a few dozen books can fit on a small bookshelf but thousands of books can fit in your two-car garage, which is a typical size because most people and families do not have more than two cars. On the other hand, if you are a Hollywood mogul, superstar athlete, or sultan with a collection of hundreds of cars, a two-car garage is orders of magnitudes too small to store your collection.[4] Even collections of digital things can be limited in size by their technological environment, which you might have discovered when you ran out of space for your songs and photos on your portable media player.

Estimating the ultimate size of a collection at the beginning of an organizing system’s lifecycle can reduce scaling issues related to storage space for the resources or for their descriptions. Other problems of scale are more fundamental. Larger collections need more people to organize and maintain them, creating communication and coordination problems that grow much faster than the collection, especially when the collection is distributed in different locations.

The best way to prevent problems of scope and scale is through standardization. Standardization of resources can take place if they are created by automated means so that every instance conforms to a schema or model (“Implementing Categories Defined by Properties”).[5] Standards for describing bibliographic resources enable libraries to centralize and share much resource description, and using the same standards for resources of diverse types helps address the challenge of broad scope by reducing the need for close monitoring and coordination. Analogous standards for describing information resources, services, or economic activities business, governmental, or scientific information systems to systematically manage hundreds of millions or even billions of transactional records or pieces of data (“Scope, Scale, and Resource Description”).

Number and Nature of Users

An organizing system might have only one user, as when an individual creates and operates an organizing system for a clothes closet, a home bookcase or file cabinet, or for digital files and applications on a personal computer or smart phone. Collections of personal resources are often organized for highly individualized interactions using ad hoc categories that are hard to understand for any other user (“Individual Categories”). Personal collections or collections used by only a small number of people typically contain resources that they themselves selected, which makes the most typical interaction with the organizing system searching for a familiar known resource (“User Requirements”).

At the other extreme, an organizing system can have national or even global scope and have millions or more users like the Library of Congress classification system, the United Nations Standard Products and Services Code, or the Internet Domain Name System. These organizing systems employ systems of institutional categories (“Institutional Categories”) that are designed to support systematically specified and purposeful interactions, often to search for previously unknown resources. In between these extremes are the many kinds of organizing systems created by informal and formal groups, by firms of every size, and by sets of cooperating enterprises like those that carry out supply chains and other information-intensive business processes.

The nature and number of users strongly shapes the contents of an organizing system and the interactions it must be designed to support. (See “User Requirements”) Some generic categories of users that apply in many domains are customers, clients, visitors, operators, and managers. We can adapt the generic interactions supported by most organizing systems (“Determining the Purposes”) to satisfy these generic user types. For example, while most organizing systems allow any type of user to browse or search the collection to discover its content, only operators or managers are likely to have access to information about the browsing and searching activities of customers, clients, or visitors.

Once we have identified the organizing system’s domain more precisely we can refine these generic user categories, classifying users and interactions with more precision. For example, the customers of university libraries are mostly professors and students, while the customers of online stores are mostly shoppers seeking to find something to purchase. Library customers borrow and return resources, often according to different policies for professors and students, whereas online stores might only allow resources to be returned for refunds or exchanges under limited circumstances.

Just as it is with collection scope, the heterogeneity of the user base is more critical than its absolute size. An airport bookstore typically has a narrowly focused collection and treats its customers as generic travelers browsing imprecisely for something to fill their time in the terminal or on the airplane. In contrast, the local public library will have a much broader collection because it has to meet the needs of a more diverse user base than the airport bookstore, and it will support a range of interactions and services targeted to children learning to read, school students, local businesses, retirees, and other categories of users. A company library will focus its collection on its industry segment, making it narrower in coverage than a local or university research library, but it might provide specialized services for marketing, engineering, research, legal, or other departments of the firm.

Each category of users, and indeed each individual user, brings different experiences, goals, and biases into interactions with the organizing system. As a result, organizing systems in the same domain and with nominally the same scope can differ substantially in the resources they contain and the interactions they support for different categories of users. The library for the Centers for Disease Control and the WebMD website both contain information about diseases and symptoms, but the former is primarily organized to support research in public health and the latter is organized for consumers trying to figure out why they are sick and how to get well. These contrasting purposes and targeted users are manifested in different classification systems and descriptive vocabularies.[6]

The designers of these systems do not necessarily share the same biases as their users, and more importantly, they may not always understand them completely or correctly. This is precisely why good design is iterative: successive cycles of evaluation and revision can shape crude, provisional, and misguided ideas into wildly successful ones. But such nimbleness is not always feasible in highly complex, political, or bureaucratic institutional contexts. Even then, as Bowker and Star conclude, transparency is the best corrective for these sorts of design failures. Designers who recognize that their systems have real consequences for real people should commit to an ongoing process of negotiation that enables those affected by the technology to voice and push back against any detrimental effect it might have on them and their communities. This helps set the stage for effective operation and maintenance of the system (“Properties, Principles and Technology Perspective”).

Expected Lifetime

The scope and scale of a collection and the size of its user population are often correlated with the expected lifetime of its organizing system. Because small personal organizing systems are often created in response to a specific situation or to accomplish a specific task, they generally have short lifetimes (“Individual Categories”).

The expected lifetime of the organizing system is not the same as the expected lifetime of the resources it contains because motivations for maintaining resources differ a great deal. (See “Motivations for Maintaining Resources”) As we have just noted, some organizing systems created by individuals are tied to specific short-term tasks, and when the task is completed or changes, the organizing system is no longer needed or must be superseded by a new one. At the other extreme are libraries, museums, archives, and other memory institutions designed to last indefinitely because they exist to preserve valuable and often irreplaceable resources.

However, most business organizing systems contain relatively short-lived resources that arise from and support day-to-day operations, in which case the organizing system has a long expected lifetime with impermanent resources. Finally, just to complete our 2 x 2 matrix, the auction catalog that organizes valuable paintings or other collectibles is a short-lived single-purpose organizing system whose contents are descriptions of resources with long expected lifetimes.

Physical or Technological Environment

An organizing system is often tied to a particular physical or technological environment. A kitchen, closet, card cabinet, airplane cockpit, handheld computer or smartphone, and any other physical environment in which resources are organized provides affordances to be taken advantage of and constraints that must be accommodated by an organizing system (“Affordance and Capability”).[7]

The extent of these physical and technological constraints affects the lifetime of an organizing system because they make it more difficult to adapt to changes in the set of resources being organized or the reasons for their organization. A desk or cabinet with fixed “pigeon holes” or drawers affords less flexible organization than a file cabinet or open shelves. A building with hard-walled offices constrains how people interact and collaborate more than an open floor plan with modular cubicles does. Business processes implemented in a monolithic enterprise software application are tightly coupled; those implemented as a choreography of loosely-coupled web services can often transparently substitute one service provider for another.

Relationship to Other Organizing Systems

The same domain or set of resources can have more than one organizing system, and one organizing system can contain multiple others. The organizing system for books in a library arranges books about cooking according to the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal classifications and bookstores use the BISAC ones, mostly using cuisine as the primary factor (“Bibliographic Classification”). In turn, cookbooks employ an organizing system for their recipes that arranges them by type of dish, main ingredient, or method of preparation. Within a cookbook, recipes might follow an organizing system that standardizes the order of their component parts like the description, ingredients, and preparation steps.

Sometimes these multiple organizing systems can be designed in coordination so they can function as a single hierarchical, or nested, organizing system in which it is possible to emphasize different levels depending on the user’s task or application. Most books and many documents have an internal structure with chapters and hierarchical headings that enable readers to understand smaller units of content in the context of larger ones (“Structural Relationships within a Resource”). Similarly, a collection of songs can be treated as an album and organized using that level of abstraction for the item, but each of those songs can also be treated as the unit of organization, especially when they are embodied in separate digital files.

Organizing systems overlap and intersect. People and enterprises routinely interact with many different organizing systems because what they do requires them to use resources in ways that cut across context, device, or application boundaries. Just consider how many different organizing systems we use as individuals for managing personal information like contacts, appointments, and messages. As company employees we create and organize information in email, document repositories, spreadsheets, and CRM and ERP systems. Now consider this at an institutional scale in the inter-enterprise interactions among the organizing systems of physicians, hospitals, medical labs, insurance companies, government agencies, and other parties involved in healthcare. Consider how many of these are “mash-ups” and composite services that combine information and resources from independently designed systems.

We have come to expect that the boundaries between organizing systems are often arbitrary and that we should be able to merge or combine them when that would create additional value. It is surely impossible to anticipate all of these ad hoc or dynamic intersections of organizing systems, but it is surely necessary to recognize their inevitability, especially when the organizing systems contain digital information and are implemented using web architectures.

  1. For some kinds of resources with highly regular structure, the distinction between the resource and its description is a bit arbitrary. A transactional document like a payment contains at its core a specification of the amount paid, which we could consider the payment resource. Information about the payer, the payee, the reason for the payment, and other essential information might be viewed as descriptions of the payment resource. In a payment or financial management system, the entire document might be treated as the resource.

  2. The results of this analysis can be represented in a conceptual model or document /database schema that can guide the automated creation of the resource instances and their descriptions (“Abstraction in Resource Description”). Furthermore, these models or schemas can also be used in “model-based” or “model-driven” architectures to generate much of the software that implements the functionality to store the instances and interchange them with other information systems; “imagine if the construction worker could take his blueprint, crank it through a machine, and have the foundation for the building simply appear.” Quote comes from (Miller and Mukerji 2003). See also (Kleppe, Warmer, and Bast 2003).

  3. See (Chen, Li, Liang, and Zhang 2010), (Pohs 2013).

  4. See http://autos.ca.msn.com/editors-picks/the-worlds-biggest-car-collectors.

  5. Model-driven software generation can be simple—an XFORM specification that creates an input form on a web page. Or it can be complex—a detailed architectural specification in UML sufficient to generate a complete application.

  6. Compare www.cdc.gov/philc and www.webmd.com.

  7. Service design, architecture, and user interaction design are the primary disciplines that care about the influence of layout and spatial arrangement on user interaction behavior and satisfaction. One type of physical framework is the “Servicescape(Bitner 1992), the man-made physical context in which services are delivered. For example, the arrangement of waiting lines in banks, supermarkets, and post offices or the use of centrally-visible “take a number” systems strongly influence the encounters in service systems (Zhou and Soman 2003). Related concepts for describing the use of features and orienting mechanisms in “the built environment” come from the “Wayfinding(Arthur and Passini 1992) literature in urban planning and architecture.


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The Discipline of Organizing: 4th Professional Edition Copyright © 2020 by Robert J. Glushko is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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