“The central purpose of systems for organizing information [is] bringing like things together and differentiating among them.”
Almost by definition, the essential purpose of any organizing system is to describe or arrange resources so they can be located and accessed later. The organizing principles needed to achieve this goal depend on the types of resources or domains being organized, and in the personal, social, or institutional setting in which organization takes place.
Organizing systems can be distinguished by their dominant purposes or the priority of their common purposes. Libraries, museums, and archives are often classified as memory institutions to emphasize their primary emphasis on resource preservation. In contrast, “management information systems” or “business systems” are categories that include the great variety of software applications that implement the organizing systems needed to carry out day-to-day business operations.
“Bringing like things together” is an informal organizing principle for many organizing systems. Almost as soon as libraries were invented over two thousand years ago, the earliest librarians saw the need to develop systematic methods for arranging and inventorying their collections. The invention of mechanized printing in the fifteenth century, which radically increased the number of books and periodicals, forced libraries to begin progressively more refined efforts to state the functional requirements for their organizing systems and to be explicit about how they met those requirements.
Today, any information-driven enterprise must have systematic processes and technologies in place that govern information creation or capture and then manage its entire life cycle. Commercial firms need processes for transacting with customers or other firms to carry out business operations, to support research and innovation, marketing, and to develop business strategy and tactics in compliance with laws and regulations for accounting, taxes, human resources, data retention, and so on. In large firms these functions are so highly specialized and complex that the different types of organizing systems have distinct names: Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Enterprise Content Management (ECM), Enterprise Data Management (EDM) Supply Chain Management (SCM), Records Management, Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Business Intelligence (BI), Knowledge Management (KM), and so on. And even though the most important functions in the organizing systems of large enterprises are those that manage the information resources needed for its business operation, these firms might also need to maintain corporate libraries and archives.
Preserving documents in their physical or original form is the primary purpose of archives and similar organizing systems that contain culturally, historically, or economically significant documents that have value as long-term evidence. Preservation is also an important motivation for the organizing systems of information- and knowledge-intensive firms, where information is primarily in digital formats. Businesses and governmental agencies are usually required by law to keep records of financial transactions, decision-making, personnel matters, and other information essential to business continuity, compliance with regulations and legal procedures, and transparency. As with archives, it is sometimes critical that these business knowledge or records management systems can retrieve the original documents, although digital copies that can be authenticated are increasingly being accepted as legally equivalent.
This discussion of the requirements for organizing resources in memory institutions and businesses might convey the impression that storing and retrieving resources efficiently are paramount goals, and indeed they are in many contexts. But there are many other reasons for organizing resources, as is easily seen when we look at personal organizing systems. And there are many other ways to compare organizing systems than just how efficiently they enable storing and retrieval functions.
An overarching goal when people are organizing their personal resources is to minimize the effort needed to find the resources. But unlike the finding task in institutional organizing systems, which is generally facilitated with external resource descriptions, finding aids, classifications, search engines, and orientation and navigation mechanisms, the finding task in personal organizing systems is primarily a cognitive one: you need to remember where the resources are and how they are arranged. Because each person has unique experiences and preferences, it is not surprising that people often organize the same types of resources in different ways to make the organization easier to perceive and remember. The resulting resource arrangements often emphasize aesthetic or emotional goals, as when books or clothes are arranged by color or preference, or behavioral goals, as when most frequently used condiments and spices are kept on the kitchen counter rather than stored in a pantry.
When individuals manage their papers, books, documents, record albums, compact discs, DVDs, and other information resources, their organizing systems can vary greatly. This is in part because the content of the resources being organized becomes a consideration. Furthermore, many of the organizing systems used by individuals are implemented by web applications, and this makes them more accessible than physical resources.
Put another way, an information resource inherently has more potential uses than resources like forks or frying pans, so it is not surprising that the organizing systems in offices are even more diverse than those in kitchens.
When the scale of the collection or the number of intended users increases, two things can happen. The first is that if the system can turn its interaction traces into interaction resources, additional value can be created by analyzing these resources to enhance the interactions, to suggest new ones, or make predictions about how individual users or groups of them will behave. Every business that has a high volume of customer transactions does this; for example, a fast-food restaurant would analyze time-stamped sales data, and might introduce a quick pickup line for items that sell the most, or create product bundles that increase sales while optimizing kitchen and counter work. Amazon.com and other retailers that can capture detailed browsing traces can augment the sales data they collect by treating items that were looked at but not purchased as potential transactions, making them additional inputs to their sophisticated pricing and recommendation systems.
A second likely outcome of increased scale or use is that not everyone is likely to share the same goals and design preferences for the organizing system. If you share a kitchen with housemates, you might have to negotiate and compromise on some of the decisions about how the kitchen is organized so you can all get along. In more formal or institutional organizing systems conflicts between stakeholders can be much more severe, and the organizing principles and policies or permissions for the kinds of interactions available to different users might even be specified in commercial contracts or governed by laws or standards. For example, Bowker and Star note that physicians view the creation of patient records as central to diagnosis and treatment, insurance companies think of them as evidence needed for payment and reimbursement, and researchers think of them as primary data. These groups do not agree on the priority and quality requirements they assign to different information in the patient record, and physicians understandably resist doing work that has no direct benefit for them. Not surprisingly, policy making and regulations about patient records are highly contentious.
Once we acknowledge that stakeholders might not share the same goals, it is clear that efficiency is too narrow a measure for evaluating organizing systems. The ways that resources are organized and interacted with embody the priorities and values of those designing the organizing system, yielding arrangements and interactions designed to control or change the behaviors of the users. Put more bluntly, resources are always organized in ways that are designed to allocate value for some people (e.g., the owners of the resources, or the most frequent users of them) and not for others. From the perspective of the other types of user trying to interact with the system, this organization will likely seem unfair. In this way, organizing resources can often be seen as creating winners and losers, providing benefits to the former and imposing costs or constraints on the latter. For example, search engines analyze interaction resources to adjust search results and choose an ad that is related to your latest query. These are considered improved interactions from the perspective of the search engine, but you might consider it a violation of your privacy and a bit creepy to have the targeted ad follow you around the web until you click on it.
The emerging field of applied behavioral economics, popularized in books like Freakonomics and Nudge, explains how subtle differences in resource arrangement, the number and framing of choices, and default values can have substantial effects on the decisions people make. Consider the arrangement of salads, pasta dishes, bread, fish, meat, desserts and other types of food in a self-serve cafeteria buffet. In a school setting, the food might be organized and presented to encourage healthier eating, perhaps by making the fatty french fries and high-calorie desserts hard to reach or by providing smaller trays and plates. The same foods would likely be organized differently in an all-you-can-eat restaurant, where the goal is to minimize food costs, with less expensive items like salads at the front of the line to ensure that trays and plates will already be full when the customer gets to the more expensive items at the end of the line.
The organization of cafeteria buffets to shape user behavior might not seem sinister. However, organizing systems can control behavior in ways that create or perpetuate inequities among their users. This unfairness is a matter of degree: a person who does not own a computer who goes to the public library to check out a popular book loses out when the library enables patrons with computer access to check out books online and assumes that everyone has an equal shot at accessing books via the Internet.
Looking to a much more insidious organizing system, when the South African government adopted Apartheid policies to classify and segregate people by race, it systematized economic and political discrimination and great suffering for the nonwhite population. (See the sidebar, Power and Politics in Organizing.)
Classification: Assigning Resources to Categories more fully explains the different purposes for organizing systems, the organizing principles they embody, and the methods for assigning resources to categories.
For example, many people manage their digital photos with Flickr, their home libraries with Library Thing, and their preferences for dining and shopping with Yelp. It is possible to use these “tagging” sites solely in support of individual goals, as tags like “my family,” “to read,” or “buy this” clearly demonstrate. But maintaining a personal organizing system with these web applications potentially augments the individual’s purpose with social goals like conveying information to others, developing a community, or promoting a reputation. Furthermore, because these community or collaborative applications aggregate and share the tags applied by individuals, they shape the individual organizing systems embedded within them when they suggest the most frequent tags for a particular resource.