How much structure is enough? And when is there too much?

Probably from the dawn of record-keeping, there has been a tension between maintaining written records in highly structured, or relatively unstructured formats.  Now that we are having so many conversations in written form, the question looms large in social media.

It’s much easier to write in a stream of consciousness fashion than it is to organize one’s thoughts into a highly structured format.  But USING that information later, for purposes beyond the initial communication, becomes much easier if there is a structure in place.

Email is basically an unstructured format for written conversation, which is probably why so many of us feel  so comfortable with it. It’s easy to write, and easy to respond to in the moment.

Using it as a historical reference, however,  is a bit challenging  Archived email is searchable, but as anyone who ever tried it knows, it can be devilishly hard to reconstruct a conversation which featured emails with several different subject lines and several different sets of recipients. Invariably, there’s a thread somewhere which is totally missing because the searcher was inadvertently left off the cc: list somewhere along the line.

The new microblogging formats are similar. It’s easy to dash off a 140 character message,  easy to read and respond to it, harder to reconstruct a conversation which featured several  variations on the same hash tag, or people using different words to describe the key concept.

Since organizations depend on re-using the information communicated among participants to form plans and contracts, it’s easy to see why email and twitter-like conversational platforms just aren’t adequate.

Data nerds would suggest that we use relational databases to do our communicating, so that we could then plumb it with arcane query statements,  but that just won’t fly with most humans.

So how do we structure conversations just enough so that people can still communicate fluidly, but simultaneously create a record which can be re-used?

I would suggest that the format which has stood the test of time on this front is the asynchronous online forum.  Introduced on the pre-internet local bulletin board systems 30 years ago, forums continue to thrive as conversational reference works.  Do a Google search to ask a question about virtually any consumer electronic product, and several of the top results will be posts to forums dedicated to that product.  Read a few of the conversations that fellow users have had tackling the problem you face, and odds are that even if you don’t get exactly the answer you hoped for, you’ll come away with several promising directions to pursue.

These days, it’s possible to blend the freedom of email with the structure of forums – most forums permit one to subscribe and to participate without ever leaving the comfort of one’s inbox.

I try not to start a new project without having a forum discussion available to the team as our central point of contact. I’ll make the forum, seed it with a few initial topics – one for the project plan, one for each phase of the project, and one for miscellaneous stuff which doesn’t fit elsewhere. I’ll subscribe everyone to email from the forum.  And then I’ll spend the first week or two transferring each and every stray email I receive into the forum, and posting answers  there.   It usually only takes that long for people to realize how incredibly useful it is to be able to go straight to the forum to find out what the heck we said last week about what sort of information we still needed to gather.  It cuts down majorly on the “Oh, I must not have been copied on that request” excuse for having failed to act, too, which gladdens this project manager’s heart.