Search and Retrieve

I was talking to a close friend about the need to create connections at work, and also save relevant information about those connects. One thing led to another and we started talking about data structures. He wanted to see what columns I would add in my Excel sheet when I save their contact info. I told him that I stopped using Excel for such things more than a decade ago.

Let me explain why this old, linear way of thinking doesn’t work anymore.

We live in a world of abundance, not scarcity. We generate more data from more sources, more quickly, and with more frequency than ever before. However, Technology also keeps evolving at a scorching pace, and Search tools have got much, much better with time.

Think about how you use email at work. Chances are, you have multiple folders created in your Inbox, and take the time to save every email in its respective folder. But folders are a linear way of working. The same email can’t be stored in two folders, but it is possible to classify the same content in more than one way. As a result, when you save that email, you may think it belongs to the “Projects” folder, but when you try to retrieve it, you may first look for it in the “Key Clients” folder instead. Precious time is wasted in searching through folder after folder, until you eventually locate the item you are looking for.

An easier way to manage this is to simply have one Inbox folder, and use the Search tool to search and locate anything you want, from that one place! If you also use your inbox to manage your to dos (like I do), you can add a folder for items you have already processed, and have just two folders instead of many.

That second system works much better than the first since it leverages very powerful Search tools to store and retrieve your emails, without adding any cognitive load to classify them in linear (limited) ways. If your email service allows for tags (like GMail does), that also adds an additional dimension to your data, but without the limitation of folders, since the same content can be tagged in unlimited ways.

Taking the same approach to your contact list, the idea is to use powerful search tools (built into all smartphones) that can find whatever you are looking for, without thinking about how you classified that information originally.

On the phone, I don’t even use tags to categorize my contact entries any more, and instead use the Notes field to write all the keywords I think are important, while interacting with any person. The “classification” system is fluid and non-standard. It varies from person to person, since for some I may save family-related details, and for others I may save info related to their work. But that does not matter, since Search cuts through all structures and looks inside every contact entry to find the keywords I am looking for.

At work, a Global Address Book in Outlook already saves every one’s work info including location, department, contact details, etc. All I need to do is save select entries to my Outlook address book, and add some relevant content in the Notes field, to help me remember contextual details. This also has the added advantage of the contact entry being linked to the Global Address Book at work, so that all the contact info stays automatically updated.

So, no more Excel files or columns or reinventing the wheel on which attributes should be saved, or how the data should be categorized. Embrace non-linear and interconnected ways of working with data – that’s the world we live in now. Once you do, you will find that the possibilities are endless.

See Also: Making Sense of Data

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