Friday, June 1, 2012

Chunking Our Filing

Ours is often treated as an underdog profession; misunderstood, ignored, or put-off as long as possible. We are the Aunt Martha in the family tree of business; our gitfs dusted off for display on the odd times we are graced a visit to the front office, the recipients of our expertise grinning their acceptance while secretlly planning on archiving our advice as soon as we take our leave.

Amongst ourselves there is much talk about how to raise the profile of our profession. I agree only in part. I don't think we should seek a greater public profile; we work best when we are invisible; like the utility lines in a building. I subscribe to the adage, "Be Brief, Be Bright, Be Gone". When I make it clear that I am quite happy to make the important things happen in the background, reappearing only at critical times, my bosses can relax to concentrate on the business of the day.

One of the crowning glories of our achievement is the development of a comprehensive file plan. Back in the day, the pièce de résistance was the Block Numeric Subject Classification System. These days, New South Wales has led us along the yellow brick road to a new standard in clarity and comprehension; Functional design.

In practical application however, we are often stymied by a lukewarm reception by the recipients of these designs. These labours of love, these bricks, are often given the royal brush-off and just like Aunt Martha, we are often not invited back.

I've seen thes file designs, and there is hardly a flaw to be found. They are comprehensive, logical.

What are we doing wrong?

I think we often make a fatal flaw in presentation. These manuals are just too darn big. Encyclopedias and thesaurii are logical and comprehensive too. But few people read them from cover to cover. These sorts of reference are valued to look things up, not as novels to be read cover to cover. The structure does not even need to be obvious (think google). Sure there is a great deal of labour invested in our invisibile indices, but their invisibility is part of their charm.

What we have failed to consider is a person's capacity to integrate a large structure. People can remember up to seven groupings (plus or minus two). This capacitiy is refered to as chunking and as records professionals we would be wise to keep this in mind. Now, this does not mean that we must limit our file structure to five to nine categories. But it does mean that people can absorb perhaps only the first level of our design at first sitting. It would take follow-up sessions in each grouping to fully comprehend the overall design. It is unfair of us, really, to expect others to quickly grasp a design that we have taken months to develop and integrate.
Photo borrowed from The Baby Jar
  • When showing off a file design, show first the highest level of structure on a single page; perhaps show the titles only, and in a matrix rather than a list. The highest level of structure must be simple, intuitive!
  • Keep this high level design foremost when you shepherd your file design through to approval. Meet with the decision makers face-to-face, walking them through the design. Don't be offended if they forego an in-depth review.
  • When implementing your design, chunk off portions that are relevant to the audience. For instance, show the IT section to IT, and so on.
  • For even greater buy-in, engage participation in the design by offering proposed titles on index cards and inviting participants to sort them in to categories during a participatory planning session. There is something about handling and building a structure that builds a sense of ownership of the design. Be ready to share.
  • Develop "cheat lists" for individual users for frequently used sections of the file designs.
Remember, though we have had months to orient ourselves to the new file design, newcomers have not had that luxury. Create comfort with the system by introducing sections that interest them. Provide one-page summaries to help them build their familiarity in chunks.

As we develop our expertise not only in file design but in the ways people absorb and adapt to new systems, I believe we can shed our Aunt Martha image. As welcomed partners at the table with ready solutions in our pocket, we can be counted to bring order to the backbone of our business.

* Photo borrowed from The Baby Jar.