Filers vs Pilers

Filers Versus Pilers

Priority Interrupt by Steve Ciarcia

Circuit Cellar Magazine

December 2005, Issue 185

“It's been a number of years since I talked about the myth of the paperless office and how we should all have one by now. It certainly hasn't happened in the Circuit Cellar. While I would swear that I don't print anywhere as much as I used to, the depth of the paper piled around my office certainly isn't less these days. Apparently, my addiction to ink-jet fumes and rolled cellulose isn't either.

I was surfing around the Internet recently when I came across an interesting theory that seems to describe my behavior pattern much better than my just being some scofflaw who can't seem to get with the program. If I were more paranoid, I would say it is a conspiracy, but there is a very adamant minority of people who are so hostile about cluttered desks that they think that anyone who piles paper is a lower life form.

Piles of empty Mountain Dew cans aside, virtually all office clutter is work-related. Nevertheless, too many managers treat paper clutter like it's piles of dirty socks or opened catsup packets. Advances in technology give added authority to their prejudice. Paper is old-fashioned and can't be networked. In their minds, a neat desk is the foundation of achievement. Therefore, people who have cluttered desks are unrepentant slobs who aren't working efficiently and should feel very guilty.

Unfortunately, the paperless office and black or white policy decisions often don't take into account how people work, or more importantly, how many of us think while we work. Why do we create piles, and why do we spread things around our desks when it's obvious that the computer sitting in the middle of all this mess has much greater resources to sort and find information?

Apparently, there is a theory that there is a distinction between 'imaginative knowledge', as used by a design engineer, and 'clerical knowledge', as used by a billing clerk. Their filing methods and how they generate clutter are directly associated with how they think.

Clerical people print information to execute a company function. Imaginative people print information to increase knowledge. The paper they generate helps them learn rather than simply being a means of data storage. An engineer will often print out and write comments on a datasheet simply because the process of note taking helps him learn. Like most notes, however, once they have served their purpose, they are rarely retrieved again from the pile.

Imaginative people spread stuff all over the place as a physical representation of how they think, not because they are too inept to file it. In essence, the piles are temporary holding places for hot ideas and inputs that we either haven't categorized yet or haven't figured out how we'll use yet. Without categorization, there is no way to file them. And by the time we do categorize them, often the goal for which we collected the pile in the first place has been achieved, so we can throw that whole pile in the wastebasket anyway.

Of course, this clutter-then-toss-it behavior pattern is very disconcerting to the clerical knowledge thinker. It's basically filers verses pilers. A filer gathers information and puts it away. A piler gathers information and puts it in various piles from the center of work focus outward. There are the in-process hot piles for immediate attention, the various warm piles for projects that are on the list or might be in short duration, and the cold piles for things that are done and should be archived or filed (wastebasket).

It's been 25 years since I worked in corporate America with its world of rules. Don't get me wrong, the Circuit Cellar isn't some disaster area to be salvaged only with a local landfill permit. In the world of engineer workplaces, I think it's actually quite neat but there are those piles. ;-)

I've never felt guilty about my horizontal filing methods, and I am happy that I don't have to answer to others regarding it. In retrospect, I never quite understood the psychology of it, but I can immediately identify with using hot, warm, and cold as the only filing criteria. In my mind, filers go overboard. They are so wrapped up in the information system that they file too much, and when they search for something they either forget how they filed it or get back too much extraneous information.

Unfortunately, for many working engineers, clerical knowledge managers get to set the rules. While it's not pretty, piling provides somewhat ready access to current materials as well as providing a ready reminder about the in-process tasks and those still on the list. By forcing imaginative people to follow ridiculous rules in order to strive for the paperless (or less paper) office, they don't realize that there is a greater consequence. When you mess with people's desktops, you mess with how they think.”

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