IBM v. EGR: A Debate on Some Fundamental Shit

Document Management Dead? -- I Don't Think So!

Eric Severson 
Executive Consultant
IBM Global Services

David Weinberger, publisher of the Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization, has declared that documents and document management are dead, that the web has killed them. Like Frank Gilbane of CAP Ventures, I beg to differ.

Document management is not dead, and neither are documents! However, I would say that highly structured, static documents are in fact dying quickly, as are highly structured, static workflows and business processes. Just like the hyperlinked organizations David describes (mine is one of them!), document management is absolutely present and accounted for, but more and more focused on smaller documents fitting together in less predictable ways, and integrated with increasingly dynamic business rules and processes. Without a doubt, it's also getting difficult to talk about document management without using the word "web" in the same sentence.

Call it "the web taking over," call it "knowledge management," call it what you will. What's really happening is that the world is changing faster than you and I can keep up with, and the old definitions, techniques and assumptions are being forced to change along with it. This is not just true for documents, by the way -- we're simultaneously questioning structured, static definitions of business units, organizational hierarchies, office hours, career paths, policies and procedures, product sets, and information systems. Like all these other things, it's not that people no longer need documents, it's just that documents are adapting to fit much more dynamic requirements. As a means of flexibly sharing information, documents have existed longer than any other medium save cave painting and language itself. And no, they're not going away soon. However, the specific medium keeps changing with the times (stone tablets to papyrus to the printing press to email and electronic books to web sites), and with each new paradigm comes a loosening of prior constraints and a host of new opportunities.

There is still a constant, however, and that's the need to manage these documents, whatever form they take. The plain fact is, whether you are dealing with the ancient Library of Alexandria or a really cool 90's web site, you expect -- and need -- the information you're relying on to be absolutely accurate, timely and complete. And you'd better be able to find what you actually need in a reasonable amount of time. It's just the way we look at "management" that keeps changing. Like 19th century assembly lines giving way to dynamic processes and just-in-time planning, the definition of document management is changing from static libraries to dynamic systems that facilitate collaborative thinking and assemble and deliver information right when it's needed. Web technology and web architecture fit right into this new picture, but the web has not obviated the need to manage the underlying information. As an IBM ad expresses it, "What's the difference between a little kid with a web site and a major corporation with a web site? Nothing -- that's the problem!" And believe me, with more and more organizations trying to move mission- critical documents and applications to the web, the reality of these issues soon upstages the philosophical debates.

I love Tim Bray's quote cited by Frank Gilbane (that defining the difference between documents and non-documents is as meaningful as pinning down whether an electron is a particle or a wave). I would take this even further. Scientists will tell you that the answer you get depends on how you ask the question, and that while in many circumstances it is useful to think of an electron as a particle, in others it is more useful to think of it as a wave. I like this concept of "useful" as the reason we bother to worry about such definitions at all. It may be that an electron is actually both a particle and a wave -- all at the same time -- but in reality it is neither. "Particle" and "wave" are concepts that we humans invented because such concepts seemed useful at the time. The electron continues on with its own reality regardless, blissfully ignorant of our feeble attempts to "define" it. And when the electron doesn't quite fit neatly into our self-proclaimed definitions, we are puzzled and call this a "paradox." Hmmm.

So it is with "documents" vs. "non-documents," "document management" vs. "the web," "knowledge management" vs. "context management," and so on and so on. We can argue definitions and terminology, but business processes and business needs will continue with their own reality and urgency no matter how we try to characterize them. Ultimately, this whole debate is just a war of words, except as these concepts help us change from a static to more dynamic way of thinking. I find there are indeed times when it is useful to think of an object as a "document" or an application as "document management," and other times when it's more useful to talk about "knowledge" or "web-based business." But, regardless of the names we use, the more we persist in thinking of these kind of applications as highly rigid and lockstep, the more we are failing to keep up with today's business reality. Conversely, the more we are tempted to think that documents and document management are no longer needed, the more we are missing the point.

Eric Severson
IBM Global Services
Enterprise Document Management Solutions and Services
5600 North 63rd Street, MS 026N
Boulder, CO 80314
Voice +1 (303) 924-1416
Fax +1 (303) 924-1898

What Do You Mean By "Management," White Man?

Interim Representative, 5th Galactic Council
Planet Earth

Whatever David Weinberger, publisher of  The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization, may or may not have declared in his crappy little webzine about documents being dead, alive or in some intermediate state not given to the people of your planet to understand at this particular point in your arrested evolution, and notwithstanding the remarks of Frank Gilbane or Tim Bray, or the inevitable ripostes of such luminaries as Larry Bohn, the present writer became sufficiently cheesed off at several notions floated in the remarks on the left by one-time professional associate Eric Severson -- now lickspittle SGML lackey and running dog revisionist spin doctor for IBM -- that he felt moved to respond.

Just remember, pal, you asked for it!

On 2/8/97, Thomas Stewart of Fortune magazine sent the following note relevant to the present discussion:

"I think you'll like the book. The homunculus is in it, duly credited to you. I think the analogy was some sort of EGR precursor."
This reference, of course, requires the unpacking of several non-trivial concepts, not least of which is the complex intertextuality it invokes and embodies. This apparently simple 25-word message would delight anthropologist Clifford Geertz, for like the cultural (mis)interpretations he has spent an illustrious career dissecting in places such as North Africa and Indonesia, understanding even its surface meaning is contingent upon access to the substance of a seven-year email-mediated conversation -- "just a war of words" in Mr. Severson's reductionist Weltanschauung -- plus a basic grasp of the two documentary sources it explicitly refers to: EGR and "the book" -- not to mention the mention of the rather arcane concept of the homunculus and how that fits into this constellation of apparently confusing ideas in such a way as to form a perfectly understandable communication which quite excited us, and for which we extend to Tom our sincerest thanks.

The book he refers to is his Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Nations, published in 1997 by Currency/Doubleday. There is also a rather skewed description of the book at the EGR page, Firewall My Ass! (which covers other matters relevant to this debate, but which would very likely overburden the current communication, which is already getting out of hand as you may have noticed).

The homunculus comes into this in the form of a story we wrote that Tom has used in innumerable talks to hotshit business executives of every stripe, and which also found its way into the book. The context for this story was a lengthy exchange on the nature and implications of Frederick Winslow Taylor's ideas about "scientific management" -- ideas that keep creeping back into contemporary views, such as those expressed on the left, disguised as commonsense rationality. Here's how Stewart recast our little tale:

"But Taylorism has its limits, as Henry Ford's descendants learned. The only brainpower Taylor used was managerial brainpower. Taylorism is 'Father Knows Best' management. Hundreds of years ago, people studying the nature of intelligence figured out that the brain is the seat of reason. But what directs the brain? they wondered, and they imagined a little man inside, called a homunculus. But wait, someone asked: where did he get the knowledge? Maybe from a still smaller man, and one yet smaller, till finally you reached some eensy-weensy pea-sized something that was the font of all wisdom. It's silly biology. And, at least as far as knowledge work is concerned, it's silly organizational theory, with these nested Russian dolls, and, tiniest and smartest of all, the fount of all knowledge, the CEO." [p. 48]

To understand Tom's remark that this parable was a precursor to Entropy Gradient Reversals, you would have to know that when we began writing EGR (long after the Tayor and homunculus discussions) we were employed by IBM and were even then suggesting, in ways too obvious to be missed by anyone but our intended targets, that Father -- one "Lou Firstner" in our thinly camouflaged satire -- not only did not know best, but was perhaps the victim of an unfortunate congenital deficit in the intellect department. You would also have to know something about the concept of entropy as it applies to information -- and if you have ever played the children's game called "Telegraph" or attended a high-level business meeting, you already know that.

Now as Mr. Severson himself has seen fit to make reference to IBM's current advertising campaign -- a laudable revival of the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt the company leveraged with such effectiveness in previous decades -- let us briefly explore the implications he puts forward here.

When he says that "the web has not obviated the need to manage the underlying information" we are apparently meant to infer that companies wielding far more insight, intelligence and -- this is important -- computationally effective means of bringing said insight and intelligence to bear, can, through such means, create a web-based information collection distinguishable in kind from one created by "a little kid." Moreover, we are asked to take it on faith that the unequivocal transparency of this line of argument will usher us into a near-beatific state of certainty in which "the reality of these issues soon upstages the philosophical debates."

Not so fast there, Severson! Leaving aside the whole issue of how narrative "information" differs from the more tractable contents of database fields, and how anything worth calling "thought" is not quite as amenable to algorithmic massage, let us end by suggesting that the not-so-subtle implication of greater knowledge on the part of organizations such as IBM is not necessarily supported by the fact of their larger revenues, and that, from an epistemological perspective, the heart of the problem remains: who's minding the store?

Unless we subscribe to some contemporary analog of the homunculus theory, globally networked information is always going to exceed the grasp of any single individual or organization. Making anything close to sense of such information will require a) that the top-down management topology typical of business hierarchies be replaced by tangled nets of collaborating minds able to overcome the "efficiencies" of computational categories and techniques that have long since outlived their usefulness, and b) that the notion of operationalizing these latter methods stop being perceived as anything other than a huge leap backwards.

For our own part, we're betting on the little kids.

Planet Earth
Interim Representative to the 5th Galactic Council
2295 Vineyard Place
Boulder, CO 80304
Voice +1 (303) 413-9583
Fax +1 (303) 413-9588

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