3 The Concept of “Resource”

Resource has an ordinary sense of anything of value that can support goal-oriented activity. This definition means that a resource can be a physical thing, a non-physical thing, information about physical things, information about non-physical things, or anything you want to organize. Other words that aim for this broad scope are entity, object, item, and instance. Document is often used for an information resource in either digital or physical format; artifact refers to resources created by people, and asset for resources with economic value.

Resource has specialized meaning in Internet architecture. It is conventional to describe web pages, images, videos, and so on as resources, and the protocol for accessing them, Hypertext Transfer Protocol(HTTP), uses the Uniform Resource Identifier(URI).[1]

Treating as a primary resource anything that can be identified is an important generalization of the concept because it enables web-based services, data feeds, objects with RFID tags, sensors or other smart devices, or computational agents to be part of Organizing Systems.

Instead of emphasizing the differences between tangible and intangible resources, we consider it essential to determine whether the tangible resource has information contentwhether it needs to be treated as being “about” or representing some other resource rather than being treated as a thing in itself. Whether a book is printed or digital, we focus on its information content, what it is about; its tangible properties become secondary. In contrast, the hangars in our closet and the measuring cups in our kitchen are not about anything more than their obvious utilitarian features, which makes their tangible properties most important. (Of course, there is no sharp boundary here; you can buy “fashion hangers” that make a style statement, and the old measuring cup could be a family memento because it belonged to Grandma).

Many of the resources in Organizing Systems are description resources or surrogate resources that describe the primary resources; library catalog entries or the list of results in web search engines are familiar examples. In museums, information about the production, discovery, or history of ownership of a resource can be more important than the resource; a few shards of pottery are of little value without these associated information resources. Similarly, business or scientific data often cannot be understood or analyzed without additional information about the manner in which they were collected. Most web-based businesses exploit data about how users interact with resources, such as the log files that record every web search you make, every link you click, and every web page you visit.

Resources that describe, or are associated with other resources are sometimes called metadata. However, when we look more broadly at Organizing Systems, it is often difficult to distinguish between the resource being described and any description of it or associated with it. One challenge is that when descriptions are embedded in resources, as metadata often isin the title page of a book, the masthead of a newspaper, or the source of web pagesdeciding which resources are primary is often arbitrary.

A second challenge is that what serves as metadata for one person or process can function as a primary resource or data for another one. Rather than being an inherent distinction, the difference between primary and associated resources is often just a decision about which resource we are focusing on in some situation. An animal specimen in a natural history museum might be a primary resource for museum visitors and scientists interested in anatomy, but information about where the specimen was collected is the primary resource for scientists interested in ecology or migration.

Organizing Systems can refer to people as resources, and we often use that term to avoid specifying the gender or specific role of an employee or worker, as in the management concept of the “human resources” department in a workplace. A business is defined by its intentional arrangement of human resources, and there is both variety and regularity in these arrangements (see the sidebar, Business Structures in “The Structural Perspective”). [2]

Human resources in Organizing Systems can be understood much the same way as inanimate physical or digital resources: they are selected, organized, and managed, and can create value individually or through their interactions with others inside and outside of the system.[3]

However, human beings are uniquely complicated resources, and any Organizing System that uses them must take into account their rights, motivations, and relationships. (See the sidebar, People as Resources.)

  1. The URI identifies a resource as an abstract entity that can have “multiple representations,” which are the “things” that are actually exposed through applications or user interfaces. The HTTP protocol can transfer the representation that best satisfies the content properties specified by a web client, most often a browser. This means that interactions with web resources are always with their representations rather than directly with the resource per se. The representation of the resource might seem to be implied by the URI (as when it ends in .htm or .html to suggest text in Hypertext Markup Language(HTML) format), but the URI is not required to indicate anything about the “representation.” A web resource can be a static web page, but it can also be dynamic content generated at the time of access by a program or service associated with the URI. Some resources like geolocations have “no representations at all;” the resource is simply some point or space and the interaction is “show me how to get there.” The browser and web server can engage in “content negotiation” to determine which “representation” to retrieve, and this is particularly important when that format further requires an external application or “plug-in” in order for it to be rendered properly, as it does when the server returns a Power Point file or an other file format that is not built into the browser.

    Internet architecture’s definition of resource as a conceptual entity that is never directly interacted with is difficult for most people to apply when those resources are physical or tangible objects, because then it surely seems like we are interacting with something real. So we will most often talk about interactions with resources, and will mention “resource representations” only when it is necessary to align precisely with the narrower Internet architecture sense.

  2. In addition, groups of people have come together to form “intentional communities” for thousands of years in monasteries, communes, artist colonies, cooperative houses, and religious or ethnic enclaves so they can live with people who share their values and beliefs. A directory of intentional communities organized by type and location is managed by the Fellowship of Intentional Communities.

  3. The shift from a manufacturing to an information and services economy in the last few decades has resulted in greater emphasis on intellectual resources represented in skills and knowledge rather than on the natural resources of production materials and physical goods.

    The intellectual resources of a firm are embodied in a firm’s people, systems, management techniques, history of strategy and design decisions, customer relationships, and intellectual property like patents, copyrights, trademarks, and brands. Some of this knowledge is explicit, tangible, and traceable in the form of documents, databases, organization charts, and policy and procedure manuals. But much of it is tacit: informal and not systematized in tangible form because it is held in the minds and experiences of people; a synonym is “know-how.” A more modern term is Intellectual Capital, a concept originated in a 1997 book with that title (Stewart 1997).


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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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