Personal information management in the age of the cloud – a problem statement

This post was written for my client gnowsis and appeared initially on their blog:

Yes, I remember the cloudless days, when I started to work digitally. Digital work at that time was centered around a quintessential tool, the personal computer.

„Working with the PC“ created soon significant numbers of byproducts: files. I stored these files on my personal computer and considered them as my personal information – easy as that. With the growing number of files appeared the need, to keep all that non-physical stuff more organized. For this purpose, smart brains had invented „folders“, that helped me since then, to stow away digital documents like in virtual drawers. Over time, a kind of organizational structure of folders grew, more or less tightly reflecting my professional and privat life. Although, at some point in time, folders started to become annoying, simply because of their habit, to multiply and to stick into each other. Personal information management started to give me headaches. A little headache when I needed to save a file somewhere, and a bigger headaches, when I needed to find a previously saved file again. Nothing too dramatic, but with a growing touch of uneasiness. Manageable at the end of the day, at least with some clean-up sessions across the entire directory from time to time.

Since then, my once singular and comprehensible personal information space has splintered into branches. It started with the permission to use the company network. I expatriated a lot of files to a network drive. Not enough of owning a couple of personal network folders, I soon got used to let some files reside in community with other peoples files in shared folders. My PC no longer was the unique and privileged keeper of my files. IT-departments took charge. Still, I kept the majority of my docs local. Sharing was still the exception. But the term „personal“ in computing and in information management got scratches.

Over time, shared folders have migrated into the cloud. Place of storage increasingly ceased to indicate the attribute „personal“.

As of today, my information space is multi-homed. My documents are spread across private and shared Dropboxes, as requested by one customer, they live on a Google Drive for some editorial tasks with other clients. I would not be astonished, to see them populate SkyDrives, some amazonian folders or the iCloud with the next projects to come. In most cases, that´s perfectly fine: sharing is essential for collaboration, sharing avoids requests, to check out a single file and send it via mail. Shared folders create a home for the outcomes of jointly executed work. But when I need a file, I need to ask myself first, in which cloud it lives. When I save a file, I´m frightened to confuse a destination folder and save sensitive stuff unintentionally in a place, where it does not belong. I find myself preserving important documents in unshared folders, to avoid, that they are modified by others. I experience version conflicts with files edited, or replicated by others. Searching across various clouds is painful, with each cloud service provider handling search differently. Uneasy, still and again.

My notion of „personal information“ has started to blur as shared access is on the rise to become the default. My personal information space progressively overlaps with the personal information space of others. At the same time, this information space was never more fragmented then now. The benefits of sharing are offset by the risks of losing control:

  • Who „owns“ a document in a shared repository?
  • Does ownership migrate from me to others, who collaborate to some extent on „my“ file?
  • Do I have (or lose) the right to name a file and to keep it at a certain spot in the shared area?
  • When does a change of name, place or content of a document turn intended collaboration into misappropriation?
  • Who does the clean-up in a shared folder?
  • How can it be done without impacting other collaborators?
  • Is it probably arrogant to request it?

The bottom line: in hindsight, personal information management was never free from contradictions and problems in file handling and file organization. Granted the less-than-perfect ways to manage larger numbers of documents, but at least I had full and exclusive control and responsibility over all files.

The new hegemony of the cloud(s) relieves me from some pains. Think multi-device access, forget worries about storage space and back-ups, enjoy convenience in collaboration. What got lost while moving into the clouds, is a setting to easily obtain a central view and functionality to manage all aspects of file-level control in shared environments. I want to know for sure, who can view, edit, rename, duplicate, relocate or delete my files. In terms of search, I want to stay on top of my assets spread across multiple clouds and I want to be assured, that any file related policy is not violated or circumvented through search processes or contextual content discovery.

If it is control, that significantly constitutes the notion of „personal“ in „personal information management“, then it needs to be addressed in the domain of „shared information management“. With no IT department in charge between me and my files anymore, I´m ready to take my part of responsibilities. So, please: give me the tools.