For many years, hierarchy has mattered in most things I have done for work.
Within companies, we have teams within departments within divisions and when it comes to data, hierarchy rules.
Think about it. On the computer you are reading this on right now, your files and data is all stored nicely in folders and groups so that you can find them. You probably have a folder for pictures and and one for music and one for documents and in each of those, you will have sub folders and sub sub folders and so on.
And when we build systems that use data, we tend to build them the same way with tiers and layers. The storage vendors will sell you tiered storage on the premise that it is a better way to store things.
So when I use my own companies document management platform, I find that its organisation reflects the company itself. We have folders for teams and projects that in turn sit under parent categories such as HR and Operations and Finance etc. This makes finding stuff very hard if you don’t know which department owns the data you are looking for in the first place. After all, would my companies IT policy be files under HR, IT or Operations (the answer was Legal by the way).
Then users decide that a document should be kept in their “area” so you find them placing a “copy” of it in their folders and suddenly we have multiple copies everywhere all at different revision levels!
Surely there is a better way?
Well companies like Google will tell you that the answer is “search”. They have great technologies that will index your file systems so that you just need to know the name of the file and it will find it.
And to help the search engines, we have started seeing the use of Tags. Not only do I save that Word document with a name but I also now give it tags to assist the search engines in their quest and help users identify my document without having to read it.
So in theory, if everything is tagged and everything is being indexed and rather than accessing files and data directly, we are getting to it via a search request, why do we still need to place stuff in folders and sub folders?
So maybe the world should be flat?
Sure for a lot of us, who have grown up in a structured and organised world, this might be harder than it sounds but it is probably the right thing to do.
Now take a moment to look at the picture above.
I am guessing most of us are thinking “has this guy every heard of folders” and we might be right but just think about this. When this user needs to find a file, he can see them all in one view in a single location and whilst you or I are busy double clicking our way through many folders, he has probably found his file and opened it!
So is this a better system?
How about Gmail from Google?
You never delete anything because you have loads of storage. You don’t have folders either however you can Archive stuff and Label stuff. If you want to go back to an email you got last year, you search for it in typical Google fashion.
Again this is a very flat approach.
So I suspect this will be a key differentiator between old and new schools of thought and as the next generation grows up on Facebook and Google Docs with the social web, we will see a shift. Even now we can see how different companies are thinking.
If I use Google Docs as an example, again, no folders, just tags, labels and search.
But if I then compare to Microsoft SkyDrive what do I see? Folders!!!
So the home users are already making this shift and as they embrace the online platforms, I believe we are going to see less and less structure in data storage. A total reverse of what we have done before. File systems will be flat and storage really will be just a bunch of disks added to as needed.
How will this transition into corporate world?
Probably very slowly but we really need to start thinking flat but at the same time, thinking about the data we are creating ensuring that we “tag” data properly. If we can do this, then finding stuff, moving stuff and using stuff is going to be so much easier.
I am just going to sit here now and see how many years it takes for the large corporate document management companies to catch on.