Tidy up as you go along

DisorganisedAs I scrambled to get into work on time this morning, I noticed the flat was looking a bit of a tip. Not a total disaster, but noticeably not tidy. There were a couple of errant leaves on the floor in the hall, two pans in the sink from last night’s dinner, and an increasing pile of junk on my bedside table. As my wife occasionally reminds me, this is what happens when you don’t “tidy up as you go along”.  As I drove into work, I found myself drawing a parallel between the current state of my house and how many people use their computers, and it seemed to be a fitting analogy.

Most people (excluding students, and this week, me) take care of their home. They put effort into choosing it, setting it up so it works best for them, and then maintaining it so it continues to provide the environment they want to live in. We spend a significant proportion of our lives at home, we like to know where everything is, and if anything stops working it has a significant impact on our productivity (and happiness).

We also spend a significant proportion of our time at our work computer, where we like to know where everything is, and where the impact something failing has a significant impact on our productivity.  Effectively, your computer (and the infrastructure supporting it) are your ‘virtual living space’, and the way you interact with that space to some extent determines how it will function.

So what do I mean when I say people don’t ‘tidy up’ on their computers?  I’ll give some examples of symptoms I’ve observed as an IT Manager and Computer Officer;

  • Mailboxes with over 40,000 items taking up GB of disk space, of which maybe 10% needs to be stored
  • Desktops where the wallpaper is immaterial because 70% of the space is taken up with shortcuts and files of various types and ages
  • Shared directories on file servers with data going back over 10 years, of which probably 80% or more is completely redundant

When people treat their houses like this they end up on a Channel 4 documentary being brow beaten by ‘Kim and Aggie’ for stockpiling old newspapers. Most of the people who treat information this way are (in my experience) otherwise organised, tidy and efficient people. So why is their data in such a mess?

I think it’s all about ownership and responsibility of data. I had a conversation yesterday which highlighted the main problem, when a colleague (who had been asked to identify what type of records her department kept) said “we don’t own any data records, they all belong to you guys in IT”.  Apparently, because IT control the servers and the PC’s, they’re seen as the owners of all therein.  This is like saying that whoever owns the car park you parked in this morning also owns your car.  This is a myth, and one which IT staff need to dispel.  I will probably wax lyrical on the benefits of users being more engaged with their IT systems at a later date, but in this case it is very important that users understand that they own their data, not IT.

If you’re looking for ways to encourage that feeling of ownership, there’s a couple of things you can try;

  1. Talk to your users about how their data is structured, give them input into the directory structure design so they feel like the end result is right for them
  2. Make sure users understand the cost of their data, to encourage them to perform good housekeeping, and bring home the reality of uncontrolled data growth
  3. Give users better ways to engage with their data, show them how to use the search in Windows 7 (or Windows Desktop Search in XP) and how to organise their directories

This may seem like a lot of work, but it can pay back tenfold if your users start managing their own data; reducing the time you spend building larger and larger disk arrays and managing larger and larger libraries of tapes.  It also pays back for your users, who improve their productivity and reduce their sense of frustration and disconnection from their data.  Plus, they get to take the moral high ground from knowing that they’ve done what their parents always asked them to do, “tidy up as you go along”.

Richard Bartlett

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