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Jun 24, 2011: The Metrics of In-Betweenness

I just read somewhere that when organizations reach a threshold of 150 employees, collaboration ceases. I might quibble with the black-and-whiteness of such a statement, but it feels about right to me.

If this really is the case, then the rational path for large organizations is to to keep chopping themselves up into smaller pieces that enable communication, collaboration, and innovation. In my consulting, I've seen companies with successful product groups that are about this size. These groups have their own KPI and often their own P&Ls. All good.

But usually there is no equivalent group that owns the glue, the connective tissue between product groups. That means cross-promotion is often as poor as promotion is good. In other, non-commercial contexts—say a corporate intranet—that missing glue destroys divisions' ability to communicate and collaborate with each other—which is still kind of important if a large organization is to function at all.

Many senior leaders recognize the silo problem, but they solve it the wrong way: if one hierarchical approach to organizing their business doesn't work, try another hierarchy. Don't like the old silos? Create new ones. This dark tunnel leads to an even darker pit: the dreaded—and often horrifically ineffective—reorg.

Information architects have unique skills for addressing the problem of silos. We're great at creating connective tissue. But this is hard stuff to explain to non-IAs. And we're awful at making the case that we have something to offer.

I hate to use the dreaded 'R' word, but if information architects are going to remain relevant, we need to apply our skills to connecting content across silos in a way that senior leaders can understand. In other words, we have to demonstrate the value of doing a good job connecting content across silos in a quantifiable way. We need to come up with better metrics for two areas:

  1. Contextual Navigation: Moving people horizontally between content and, ultimately, between silos of content.
  2. Search: Enabling people to drill down quickly into a site's deep content, regardless of which silo owns that content.

Many identify information architecture with only its top-down elements, like main pages and site hierarchies. These other two pillars of IA are far more important, far richer in opportunity, and as yet unexplored and under-exploited by so many large organizations.

Metrics tend to find their way into KPI. Good metrics lead to great KPI. If we information architects can develop better metrics to help optimize these two areas, today's voids of in-betweenness will be transformed into tomorrow's valuable real estate. We'll see large organizations that have product managers, teams, and strong KPI built not for silos, but for the stuff in between silos. And a clear path from information architect to product manager will emerge to the delight and relief of the many information architects who are currently pondering their future relevance.

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Comment: Jared M. Spool (Jun 24, 2011)

I think this is smart. The 150 number is the Dunbar number, which NPR does a great job of explaining here: http://www.npr.org/2011/06/04/136723316/dont-believe-facebook-you-only-have-150-friends This might've been what you saw.

I think metrics are clearly called for. However, I'm betting the more successful ones will take the form of business-related metrics, not technology-related ones.

For example, in the car rental business, one of their critical numbers is the % of inventory on the road. If it's on the road, it's making money. If it's in their lot, it's not. So, keeping more cars on the road is a good way to measure success.

I'm wondering if we can come up with an equivalent metric to navigation, that focuses on the objectives of the users or organizations and not on the click-based behaviors?

I really like your idea of glue. Might have to steal that. :)


Comment: Sarah (Jun 24, 2011)

Thank you for describing those 2 forms of navigation thereby un muddying them in my head. They should fall 'naturally'  out of a truly UCD process in which the users tasks have been mapped out that transcend the silos when the UI isn't there to constrain things

Comment: Grant Swertfeger (Jun 24, 2011)

I can attest that working in an organization with many silos is counter productive. One silo may begin to be viewed as a service organization, or as I like to say, the plumbers. The plumbers are viewed as being an expert on one thing, fixing stuff.

If this perception is allowed to continue you get things like finished mockups before IA and sometimes even requirements. This puts the "plumbers" in a bad situation of feeling that theirs skills are going unused.

I think that finding the time to build this "glue" between silos is extremely important, but much of it will depend on the culture of the individual silos and how much they value the input of other silos.

Comment: Peter Jordan (Jun 24, 2011)

Very timely, Louis. I'm in the middle of trying to articulate exactly this problem and the KPIs!

Do you just have to ask, "Did you find what you wanted?"

Comment: Adam Polansky (Jun 24, 2011)

Once again, when I look to the tribe, I usually find the words I need and in a handy take-home package too. Timely enough to be weird.

Thanks again sir.

Comment: Peter Van Dijck (Jun 24, 2011)

And if you melt down the connective tissue and the bones, what do you get? Glue!

(Trying to do a Merholz with the metaphors here ;)

Comment: Peter Van Dijck (Jun 24, 2011)

More on topic: a lot of it I think is just architecture, of the non-information kind. Just put people together that you want to work together.

Add a floor in between teams and communication drops 80% (there's research). Put them in the same room and guess what, communication goes way up.

I'm not sure if that's relevant for 150-person groups, can't put two of them in a room. But still, regular architecture might help more here than information architecture?

Comment: Richard Dalton (Jun 24, 2011)

Lou - in my experience some of the most effective measures are ones a) unique to the experience or organization and b) tied to either the user or business objectives (Jared's % on the road example fits both of these criteria).

So for example, if we ask ourselves what contextual links are trying to solve on a page, one thing we might say is that they're a safety net for someone in the wrong place. So if a user is on a page about Dogs, but they really wanted Wolves - they could either start over (backtrack, or use the global nav) to get to Wolves - or they could use the contextual link for Wolves. Success of our contextual nav link would be a high ratio of the people who look at Wolves after Dogs doing so via the contextual link rather than any other route.

Comment: Peter Boersma (Jun 25, 2011)

I have problems with the generality of the statement "Information architects have unique skills for addressing the problem of silos".

One could argue that, for example, Human Resources professionals too have skills for addressing the problem of silos, and even have the same "power to move people horizontally through silos" as well as "enable people to drill down in the company's knowledge base". They too can be seen as the connective glue... And the same could be said about upper management, whose KPIs should include cross-departmental efficiency. And I am sure others can come up with roles that also provide glue.

So, as usual, IAs are not the conductors that orchestrate everything; they play a part in the big machine...

By the way, what do you mean when you say "That means cross-promotion is often as poor as promotion is good"?

Comment: Lou Rosenfeld (Jun 26, 2011)

Thanks all of you for the great feedback!

PeterBo, to be clear, I said that IA have *unique* skills. Not that we're the *only* ones with skills. But while HR folks and upper management can reorganize people, they absolutely SUCK at reorganizing information.

In fact, I'll bet dollars to donuts that people reorgs would be reduced if companies invested more in content reorgs.

The last comment means that product areas are well-designed, but links between them are often awfully designed. Basically reiterating the idea of this posting.

Comment: Jacob Creech (Jun 27, 2011)

Interesting post; although in my experience this sort of issue can affect companies with much less than 150 staff. I think a lot of it comes down to company culture as much as anything.

I definitely agree about cutting unit size down, but then how to you achieve collaboration between the company as a whole? It almost seems to me like a Scrum of Scrums situation where you should get members of each team together act on a product backlog, and so each team knows what they are working on, and they can all self-organise the best way to get there.

Anyway, excuse my rambling. Thanks very much for the thought provoking post.

Comment: Brad Palmer (Jul 5, 2011)

Here is one simple approach to providing the "glue" and "contextual navigation" required. http://www.jostle.me/solutions/bridge-silos/

Comment: Daniel Szuc (Jul 14, 2011)

UX is "the glue" - how we teach people the tools & skills to better gel the broken pieces of organizational experiences together is key.


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