Ministry tries to trap informal info

The Ministry of Health has experimented with digital video records of "brown-bag lunches", where staff informally discuss current issues as part of its attempts to trap unstructured communication.

The Ministry of Health has experimented with digital video records of “brown-bag lunches”, where staff informally discuss current issues as part of its attempts to trap unstructured communication.

The Ministry has long been attempting to capture informal communications such as the lunches and emails to encourage the free flow of ideas and information. Hence the ministry’s Lotus Notes-based information sharing system has always been seen as more than conventional “document management” since it was conceived in 1996, says IT manager Deirdre Butler.

The ministry decided on Notes because it provided a consistent interface not only with document sharing and workflow of documents, but also with crucial applications, she says. This made it a better prospect than specialist document management systems. In retrospect the decision was further validated by the non-appearance of various kinds of advanced functionality promised by the specialist vendors.

The ministry’s most recent three-yearly re-evaluation of IT strategy — early last year — confirmed Notes as the most appropriate environment.

The ministry did considerable tailoring of Notes and developed a portal over the top of it and other applications. This was built from scratch rather than using Lotus’s own Portal Builder, which Butler described as “very nice but it didn’t provide all the functionality we needed”.

Notes allows conventional documents to be accessed by everyone in the organisation with authority — “90% of all documents should be completely available”, Butler says, and it handles the workflow and version control involved in preparing a document.

Emails are managed initially by discouraging the trivial ones; if a former member of staff has just given birth, the place for the notice is on one of the electronic bulletin boards provided under Notes.

The recipient of a business-relevant email is encouraged to place it immediately in a particular folder in one of a set of electronic “filing cabinets”, categorising it appropriately. This process is as automated as possible, with details like the author (the person who sent the email), the date and the subject matter pulled into category slots automatically.

Staff are not forced to categorise emails beyond that — they may dump them in a “general” folder — but the general principle is that “the mailbox is purely a transport mechanism; you should get it out of there as quickly as possible and do something with it”, even if it’s only putting it in a filing cabinet.

Where an email is not categorised, the system has agents that can still search through all or a subset of the cabinets for documents containing a particular keyword.

Scanned letters, images and other kinds of unstructured data finish up in the filing cabinets too. Early in development, thousands of documents were extracted from physical filing cabinets and scanned for electronic storage. This, Butler said, had the additional benefit of taking away rows of physical cabinets which had stood between desks, thus encouraging freer flow of people around the office and of ideas among people.

Certain documents can be protected so only restricted numbers of people can access them. Not everyone can put the higher grades of protection on a document, “and those that do must be taught how to use [the power] properly”, and be acquainted with the general informational openness policy of the organisation, Butler says.

Some difference arose over authors wanting to protect their drafts from general view and possible criticism before they were polished. This was overcome by allowing a clear marker of draft status to be put on such unofficial documents. Again, there was a cultural and educational element to the change, advising staff on what they could and should not say in criticism of a draft document.

The system is still far from the realm of “knowledge management”, Butler acknowledges. Much of the unstructured knowledge around a document consists of interpretations, and considerations of topics like “What did we learn from this project?”.

Butler’s proposal for covering these bases involves the employment of a specialist gatherer of interpretations, views and opinions — perhaps a former journalist — who could interview authors and interpreters of documents, teasing out the “nuggets of knowledge” not explicitly expressed in the document but implicit in its meaning and interpretation. This person would also sit in on post-mortem meetings and provide a digest of useful ideas that arose.

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