Monday, 24 September 2007

What information storage system should I use?

This is a question I’ve been hearing more and more regularly. It is clear my colleagues are becoming confused as to which tools they should be using to store their information. This is not surprising considering the different tools that are available to them; Livelink, Documentum, SharePoint, corporate wiki, etc. All these tools can be used to support collaboration and sharing of information but which should be used? This is a question I have been contemplating for a little while now. The problem is that each of these systems have their own strengths and weaknesses, no one tool meets all the requirements. Recently I had an epiphany and the penny dropped. By thinking about collaboration from a communications perspective you are able to consider the different needs of a group broken down by the audiences they communicated with. There are essentially two types of communication:

  1. Internal communication – the project is sharing transient information associated with the day to day running of the project i.e. meeting agenda, minutes, ideas, comments, etc. The key nature of much of this information is that at the time of generation it is often unclear it’s value. Only with time and additional information does the value of a piece of information become apparent. For example the value of a hypothesis cannot be judged at its conception only after testing and analysis.
  2. External communication – the project is producing reports that are aimed at informing the rest of the organisation about its status/progress. This might include stage gate documentation for example.
In the first situation the project team needs to consolidate information from many different sources including PowerPoint, Word, Excel, email, PDF, images, etc. This information needs to be made available to the whole team in an environment where comments and thoughts can readily be captured, shared and updated. By its nature this information tends to be unstructured and represents a log of the evolving thinking and progress of the project team. To the team and those who are familiar with the teams working style this environment should be readily navigatable. The drawback of this environment is that many outside the project will find this environment to be non-intuitive and they will require an investment of both time and effort to allow them to navigate to the information they want. However it is worth remembering that this ‘Project eNotebook’ is a tool primarily to support internal project communication. OneNote in combination with a file-sharing environment offers a user-friendly tool that is easy to learn and meets these requirements. As described previously, in this model each team member has a copy of OneNote on their PC and utilise a common ‘notebook’ that is hosted within SharePoint.

In comparison in the second situation the team is essentially producing reports summarising the progress or status of the project. The target audience for these reports is the external environment. In many instances these reports will utilise pre-existing templates or a formal reporting style. The team are producing structured information for consumption by an audience distant to the day to day working of the project. In this case the corporate wiki and a project blog probably represent the appropriate environment for the sharing of this type of information. Hyper linking should be used to provide soft intergration between this environment and the ‘Project eNotebook’/SharePoint site. It is envisaged that only a single document is maintained in the corporate wiki and that this is a living document that evolves with the project. Hence it is likely that as a project pass significant milestones snapshots of the projects status are archived into the appropriate corporate content management system.
This is summarised in the diagram below.

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