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Personal toolkit: The wisdom of the piles

Paper, paper everywhere and not a thought to think

By Steve Barth

This was supposed to be a column about digitizing the paper clutter of my work environment. I looked at some very good personal tools to help me do this, which I'll get to in a minute. But while doing the research, which included looking through some of the piles on my desk, I discovered that the prevailing wisdom on the subject of organizing the information and ideas that are represented on paper has changed. And that if I had been listening to what my messes had been telling me, I would have understood that already.

As a writer, I collect a lot of paper. Even today, when almost all the material I collect comes to me in digital form, I still pick up papers at conferences, lug home press kits from trade shows, rip magazine pages at random and squirrel away all the napkins, post-its and chopstick wrappers scribbled with emerging thoughts. Because of my old habit of tearing articles out of newspapers in long strips, my office was once described as looking like a giant hamster was building a nest and about to give birth there.

I was especially worried after learning that hoarding is in the same family of afflictions as depression and anxiety. Compulsive hoarding behavior turns out to be dysfunction of our ability to categorize. Could this explain the drifts of paper that accrete on my desk and the dozens of document icons that accumulate on my desktop?

Tales from the document company

So I was very interested when Johan de Kleer, manager of the systems and practices laboratory at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, told me that he was archiving in digital form every piece of paper he had saved in the 25 years since graduate school. It amounted to a stack of paper 120 ft. high. And it wasn't just taking up space; de Kleer delved into the office full of filing cabinets once or twice a week looking for something.

It wasn't easy. He devoted about 90 minutes per week to eliminating anything he figured he would never need again—about a third of it. A temp spent 40 hours a week removing staples and bindings and feeding 50-page chunks into one of Xerox's multifunction machines. The scanning took more than eight months because the old paper frequently jammed and tore. The scanner was equipped with the company's FlowPort software that automatically scans and recognizes pages and converts them to digital formats such as Portable Document Format (PDF) or Rich Text Format (RTF), routing the results to specified repositories, recipients or devices. But after that, de Kleer found enterprise document management systems weren't appropriate for such a personal collection, so he indexed the resulting 3,000-document (20GB) archive with Enfish (enfish.com) and now carries a copy with him on his laptop.

Was it worth it? He's not sure—unless you include the value of the recovered real estate when the filing cabinets were removed. But he says he gets emotional and efficiency benefit knowing he can find things. And he's even more popular with colleagues, who count on him to have access to material not available online.

Tales from the home office

I might not have de Kleer's resources to digitize a quarter century's worth of my own paper, but I could certainly scale the approach to get rid of all the loose, unfiled piles on my desk.

As luck would have it, Fujitsu asked me to look at the first model in a new line of personal scanners. Its ScanSnap will feed up to 50 sheets through a machine that automatically adjusts for the size and color of pages and, if pages are printed on both sides, scans in duplex—all at a speed of about 15 sheets per minute. Fujitsu has scaled down both the price ($495) and the footprint (smaller than a letter-size sheet of paper) compared to similar scanners.

Drop something into ScanSnap feeder, push one button and the scan is automatically sent to Adobe Acrobat or any of up to five other applications on your computer that will accept either JPEG or Portable Document Format.

ScanSnap comes with a full version of Adobe's Acrobat 5.0. By downloading Adobe's free Paper Capture plug-in, the image pages in the PDF file created by ScanSnap can be processed for searchable text via optical character recognition (OCR). The way that Acrobat does this is clever, because the PDF document shows you the image of the original scanned page and the text is hidden in a layer underneath, maximizing both the visual accuracy and the usefulness of digital text. More importantly, the text can then be searched when reading the document, and the document can be located using a desktop or enterprise search tool.

For more sophisticated character recognition, ScanSnap can also send results to any page capture application that accepts PDF files, such as ScansSoft's OmniPage or ABBYY's FineReader.

Another useful application that comes with ScanSnap is CardMinder. Drop a short stack of business cards into the feeder and card minder will recognize and database the information on either side of each card, then synchronize with PIMs.

Working without a net

Although it isn't officially approved yet for use with the Fujitsu scanner, I also previewed Version 6.0 of Adobe Acrobat. Acrobat and its Portable Document Format have long been underrated by the KM crowd, but are finally being taken seriously as a vehicle not just for capturing and transmitting explicit knowledge in a form that is easily created, indexed, shared and transmitted, but also for its ability to protect both the content and presentation of intellectual property.

Acrobat now comes in multiple versions for basic PDF creation in the Elements release ($29 in volume licensing); to creation, review and encryption in Standard ($299); and to advanced document and forms creation and other additions in the Professional product ($449). The renamed Adobe Reader is still a free download.

Besides a much friendlier interface in the application itself, Acrobat 6 delivers enhancements to one-button PDF conversion directly from Office applications—including Internet Explorer, Project and Visio on the Windows platform. Added portability to multiple platforms (including PDAs) is matched by added accessibility, such as the new Read Out Loud feature. Comments from reviewed documents can be collected and exported back to Microsoft Word. Single PDF files can be created from different file types, including large-format documents with multiple layers. The PDF format itself also sees some improved performance and smaller file sizes.

The wisdom of the piles

But does this solve my problems? Looking through the piles on my desk for something to scan, I found a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's brilliant New Yorker essay, "The Social Life of Paper," which explores what social scientists Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper call The Myth of the Paperless Office (their 2001 book).

Far from saving trees, the Web and e-mail have led to as much as a 40% increase in the use of paper—most of which seems to end up in my office. It appears that we don't just still need paper; we actually need piles of paper. Psychologist Alison Kidd, whose seminal 1994 paper, "The Marks Are on the Knowledge Worker" argues that the mess is not just a reflection of the learning process, but an integral part of the process.

"The messy desk is not necessarily a sign of disorganization," Gladwell explains. "It may be a sign of complexity: Those who deal with many unresolved ideas simultaneously cannot sort and file the papers on their desks, because they haven't yet sorted and filed the ideas in their head."

So there's a critical difference here between my crisis and Johan de Kleer's. Files are archive, piles are active (even if they're gathering dust). Clearly, there are things that should be piled and things that should be filed, but that would require categorizing them ... which I can't seem to do.

Steve Barth (global-insight.com) writes and speaks frequently about personal KM, e-mail barth.pkm@global-insight.com.

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