Tag Archives: Email

Classification or Search?

Couple of days ago, there was an interesting post by Michael Schrage where he questioned need for information classification in today’s (mostly electronic) world. I often hear same opinion from people who rely primarily on MS Outlook for storage and search of their documents. Apart from the fact that it rubs the IT administrators and record managers wrong way, there is some merit in his way of thinking. People usually get what they want – the information could be easily found and is easily accessible.

But why it is like this and is it applicable to all documents? First of all, we live in a world where information governance lies somewhere on a continuum between total ‘anarchy’ – where all documents live unorganized in one place, and a ‘tyranny’ – where every document, from the moment it is created, is classified and tracked. One side of the spectrum could be considered as for free spirited, right brain people, the other one for left brainer bureaucrats or ‘Type As’ as Schrage describes them. But reality lies somewhere in between, each of us personally leans to smaller or larger degree to one or the other end of the spectrum. My personal believe is that for us personally and as it is for organizations, to be really productive and creative, we need to balance on the edge of the chaos and tyranny.  To Schrage’s point – people quite often waste their time classifying the information that does not have to be classified. But then why do we classify in the first place? There is couple of objectives. The first one is most obvious – to easily find information, and this is what Schrage is referring to.

Not long time ago, when the documents existed only in physical form – people invented classification to locate and to find information. A good example is Dewey’s Decimal Classification system used in the libraries. First you locate books based on the class and subject, once you found it, you use index to find information within it. Electronic documents moved the limits of such system further, giving new capabilities and opportunities to search.

In case of my personal account with MS Outlook or with Twitter, Schrage is right. The value of classification of my emails for purpose of search is low. Outlook is pretty good and flexible allowing me to locate needed information fairly quickly. But why is it like this? This happens primarily because MS Outlook captures all the needed metadata describing context of the email automatically, with me spending no time on this. Sender address, date sent, received, subject, and content are searchable. Additionally the email treads functionality makes things easier to dig in deeper into messages when needed. This works so well since I am intimately familiar with my emails, and can easily recollect and associate the information with its context. But this is not going to be the same case if I inherit mailbox from someone else. Although the search might help with narrowing the results, I will need more to figure out what the message is about, and if it corresponds to what I am looking for. So, as per Schrage point – this does work for my personal productivity, but it will not help in case of an organization where I have to collaborate.

So, although I agree that classification is not needed here, and as a matter of fact it could be even restrictive, the key to success is the metadata describing the content. In case of Outlook, as I already mentioned, some of it is captured automatically. In other cases, however the metadata needs to be added, to keep the context with the content. It could be manual, but this is what most of people perceive as a ‘waste’ activity. It could be automatic, and to some degree it is possible as with MS Office documents. However, there still be some metadata that only the author could decide, as it corresponds to his or her intentions. Additionally the metadata itself could have its own classification or hierarchy to be meaningful.

So search and findability are one of the objectives of the classification. Another one, and especially important in case of organizations, is the records classification. Records should be kept for periods of time prescribed in retention schedules, usually based on document type classification. So here the classification is not going to disappear.

In summary, I agree that importance of classification will be diminishing as the technology evolvs. The automatic classification will definitely be of help but it is not there yet today. As artificial intelligence tools will become more truly ‘intelligent’ and capability of the systems will increase to analyze the content of the data, the need for manual classification will be limited. But the real purpose behind the scenes will remain – the accuracy and completeness of the metadata. Tools like Google Search or SharePoint 2010 with FAST search engine are on right track to narrow the search scope and to mine the results. Ability to use enterprise keywords, with good search analytics will help with the findability. However the need for classification will not disappear, but it will become of limited importance to most of the users.