Saturday, December 22, 2012

Topsight > Resource maps

One analytical construct that I discuss quite a lot in Topsight is something I call "resource maps." The name might be unfamiliar, but I've been discussing resource maps since 1997 under another name: "genre ecologies."

Why the name switch? "Genre ecologies" gets at the theoretical aspects that are important to academics. But they take a lot of explanation for non-academics. The concept of genre itself takes a lot of unpacking. But I've found that when I talk about mapping information resources, people can more easily grasp what's going on—and are sometimes more open to seeing unconventional or idiosyncratic resources as part of a system.

Let's take the classic example I use in my first book. Various people, in various locations, working in various organizations, all struggle when trying to use a text-based information system in conjunction with a street map. That's a classic usability problem, right? But a subset of people find ways to route around those problems. One copies down information onto a sticky note and keeps it in a folder. Another photocopies parts of his map. And so on. For these people, the information system doesn't have a usability problem, because they've successfully added an information resource that shores up the weaknesses of the current set of resources.

In some cases, these systems tend to standardize. For instance, in my second book, I describe how collections workers for a telecommunications company take a printout of people who are late on their payments, annotating it to turn it into both a checklist (who do I call next?) and a record (when I called this person, did I talk to them, leave voice mail, or what?). Even though these people all told me that they didn't learn this annotation system from anyone else, they were able to read and understand each others' checklists when necessary.

At the same time, these systems tend to have components that can be borrowed from anywhere—previous jobs, personal lives, other organizations, other domains—piled, sometimes haphazardly, in a heap of information resources. Since they come from different places, these information resources sometimes assume very different things and follow very different logics. And those mismatched resources sometimes develop disruptions.

Tracking these resources—again, not abstractly, but in the minute-by-minute, meso-level ways that they're used by actual people—can help you gain a detailed understanding of how complex the work is, how information flows around the organization, and where things go wrong. And it's a lot easier to track them if you map them out like this:
Here, each box represents an information resource that was actually observed during a field visit. The lines indicate points at which two or more information resources were observed being connected. For instance, if you see someone looking at his notebook when filling out a dialog box, you can connect them with a line. But if you never see him using the dialog box in conjunction with a folder, you don't.

Observation is crucial here. People connect information resources in a lot of different ways, including:

  • juxtaposition (two information resources attached to or overlapping each other)
  • placing (two information resources placed side by side, in a stack, or in regular places)
  • annotation (writing or altering an information resource)
  • transfer (using one information resource as source for filling in another)
  • modeling (using one information resource as a model for another)
  • reference (using one information resource to interpret or operate another)

And they don't always tell you about these connections. Some are too habitual, others seem too obvious (to them), and still others can seem petty or even embarrassing to them (few people will say that a sticky note is the linchpin of their work). But you need to be able to map them if you're going to gain topsight.

Resource maps and handoff chains are two important ways to analyze the minute-by-minute, meso-level interactions you'll observe in organizations, and I discuss them extensively in Topsight. They're two ways of looking at the same information resources. But they need to be connected. Soon, I'll discuss how to connect them.

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