The Psychology of Repository Permanence

By Deane Barker

I’ve worked in a fair amount of companies, and consulted with many others, and I’m starting to believe that a lot of the problems each one has had with document management boils down to one thing: lack of perceived permanence.

In each company, there was an ever-shifting way of storing and archiving documents. Some people had them in their local drives, some had them on a big amorphous mapped drive, others put them in Exchange public folders, other uploaded to some project management system. In all these cases, users lacked a “single source of truth,” and that produced some background unease.

Everyone “sort of” knew where to put things, or just kind of followed everyone else’s lead. Their introduction to the document repository was probably the desktop support guy muttering something about how he “mapped the S drive” as he was walking away.

Compound this with the enterprise’s apparent inability to stick with anything for too long, and you have users who just aren’t sure where to put their stuff. They have a Word document, and a half-dozen options of where to store it, each with champions and critics. No one can agree that Repository X (whatever that may be) is the place we’re going keep documents.

I’m working with my church recently on just this problem. Our church has boards – Mission Board, Property Board, etc. – that have meetings and generate minutes. No one can quite agree where these minutes should be stored. A question came up about a decision, and there were multiple copies of the meeting minutes, spread over multiple people’s computers, with none of them somehow designated as the authoritative copy.

In an email about this problem, I summed it up thusly:

I still worry about permanence. I think the biggest hurdle to get over is psychological – how do we get the staff to understand that this is it; this is the thing we’re using, forevermore? That’s a tough barrier to get over.

And this has been a core problem in every organization I’ve ever worked in. Most companies usually ended up with some massive file share somewhere, in which anyone can create and re-arrange folders, and which is one slipped mouse-click away from having huge chunks of its directory structure re-shuffled at any time.

To make matters worse, there’s no sense of “formalism” around any initiative to change this. Years ago, I wrote about the fact that the enterprise probably has enough collaboration tools, we just don’t know how to use them well and it’s rarely strongly-dictated as to what is the official repository or tool for a particular circumstance.

We don’t need a new app, we need to use the apps we have. The groupware and collaboration technology on the market today far exceeds what we use. How many billions of dollars have been spent on apps that didn’t do much more than the current one, but that management was convinced was the silver bullet to “get everyone on the same page”? It no-doubt met the same tidal wave of apathy and drowned under it.

Too many times, new tools get spit out into the enterprise with no formal training or push behind them. “Here’s your Sharepoint install, go nuts” is not a training strategy.

Beyond the training, it’s becomes a very slippery point to get across that this is The Thing. Enterprise users are bombarded with tools, and how do you achieve that critical mass of formalism and permanence that gives them a level of comfort in putting their documents into Repository X?

A couple years back, I wrote this:

Here’s something I believe to be true: intranet adoption is more a function of personal and corporate psychology than of technology. Put another way, the greatest technology in the world won’t help if your employees aren’t interested in using your intranet for whatever reason.

Beyond interest, you somehow have to convince your users that your new tool is the final tool – the accepted, standardized, formalized, and long-term solution to their problem. I maintain this is grossly harder than you think at first glance, and if you manage to achieve this, you’re 75% of the way there.

This is item #127 in a sequence of 357 items.

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