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3 April 2012

Using technology to create structure

By Andrew Clifford

How can we use technology to support the evolution of structure?

Over the last couple of weeks I have been considering how, for all but the most routine work, it is wrong to impose too rigid a structure on the work before it starts, and that we need to accept that structure will evolve as the work proceeds.

There is a lot that technology can do to help. Computers are good at holding different deliverables, and make it easy for us to change and rearrange them to create the structures that we need. Although we take them for granted, office applications - such as word processors, spreadsheets, and project management software - are great tools for gradually building and refining our ideas. Collaboration tools, from simple file sharing and email to sophisticated platforms such as Microsoft Sharepoint, allow us to work together on shaping structure.

To explore this further, I thought I would go though some of the thoughts we have had on how to use Metrici Advisor to create structure. Although Advisor is ostensibly a tool for carrying out pre-defined assessments, most situations demand something more fluid. Often the idea of what we are assessing, the objectives, the materials, or the people involved, are not known before we start.

To help build structure, here are some of the things we have been doing to support our clients:

  • Using Advisor as a secure file upload tool to share initial documents.
  • Using Advisor as a hybrid database-survey engine, defining a database structure, and then creating surveys to populate and interlink the items within it.
  • Using libraries of pre-defined assessment materials to create more tailored materials for specific client situations.
  • Extending the analysis and reporting capabilities, to explore and visualise data, to build meaning and structure for the clients.

All of these help turn initial ideas into more formal structures. So far, however, this use of Advisor has been reactive, using the tool to overcome specific client problems. There is much more we could do proactively to support fluid and evolving fact-finding and analysis. For example:

  • As well as capturing factual assessments, we should make it easy to capture and interlink other types of information, such as opinions, decisions, assumptions, judgements and conclusions.
  • Advisor provides lots of structuring capabilities, such as creating links, classifications, calculations and rules, which we use for building solutions. We should make these more readily available as part of the end-user experience to build structure.
  • We can provide better support for planning, process management and tracking progress, allowing Advisor to structure more of the entire process.
  • We should strengthen the subscription mechanisms, to make it easier to incorporate pre-defined materials and patterns into an evolving structure.

These kinds of features help bring order and structure to the ill-defined and messy situations that exist in the real world, and this is a good direction of travel for any tool that supports fact-finding, consultancy and advisory activities. Of course, I do not know exactly what we need, but that, like everything else, will evolve as the work proceeds.

Next: Client or server?

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