Solving Problems & Saving Time through Software and Crushing Entropy
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Search is a fairly solved technology these days. Google reigns supreme for searching the internet “writ large”. Since they’ve done such a good job all the e-commerce and product sites have learned how to do it well. It is not hard to find the things you’re looking to buy.
But what about knowledge. And not just any knowledge—specialized knowledge. The knowledge that you and your organization knows. The kind you don’t want anyone else to know about. It’s not necessarily “Top Secret”, but you don’t put it on blast for everyone to see.
Searching your own institutional knowledge is hard. After all, that is why it is still useful to “know where the bodies are buried.” Because institutional knowledge is hard to find out. Part of the issue is that the search corpus is often spread out, between many tools and data sources. A lot of it is never written down. And if it is written down—are you willing to bet money it is up-to-date and current? I wouldn’t.
Like I wrote about in Shared Understanding, Imperfect Representation:
There are lots of good tools now to understand what your system is actually doing. There are lots of good tools now for understanding what your users are actually doing. But within your team(s) no one person has the big picture. Everyone has a part of the model of how things ought to work. Stitching that together repeatedly, with little margin for error, is very, very hard. There are not very many tools that are specialized for that.
This is not simply a Software Engineering problem. This is a problem with all Knowledge Work. Why? Because there is no external referent for knowledge work. It is all concepts that live in our heads, relationships that exist between us, and words exchanged in person or written down. You can’t see this work like you would see a building in progress, a car on an assembly line, or even a bike being assembled in your local bike shop.
There are many tools out there that people are using, but no one likes them. None of them actually achieve the goal. I believe there are three reasons.
The first reason is that I don’t think they’re focused on the process—they’re focused on the output. Wikis and word documents presume that you’ve already come to a conclusion. This is why you have seven word documents all named the same with various “final-v1”, “v2”, “final-final” on the end of them. This is a learning process, not a static end, recognize that.
The second reason is that these tools are too hard to get your thoughts out quickly, so people don’t use them. The tools ask too much of you up-front. What is the title, what kind of template do you want, what category does this belong to. Meanwhile you’ve got a nugget of knowledge burning a hole in your skull just trying to get out onto the page before you forget it or get distracted by the next thing.
The third reason is culture. There is value in being the person who knows where the bodies are buried. There is value in scarcity. If you don’t have a culture that values collaboration and writing things down I hope you’re not holding your breath on being able to find that one thing you’re looking for.