To organize or not to organize
June 1, 2010 7:27 PM   Subscribe

A few years ago, I read an academic article which argued that people with untidy desks/filing systems had a different information management strategy from those with tidy desks. The untidy people were often inspired by resources that they found while searching for other things. Whereas the tidy people were more overtly productive, but had less chance of serendipitous inspiration. Does anyone remember this paper? I found an NYT article, but it was not based on the academic journal paper that I remember.
posted by Susurration to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
The Social Life of Paper
Looking for method in the mess.
by Malcolm Gladwell

The Myth of the Paperless Office
November 2001
6 x 9, 245 pp., 30 illus.
$42.50/£31.95 (CLOTH)

posted by ebesan at 7:50 PM on June 1, 2010

Barbara Kwasnik did some early work analyzing desks and filing systems, although I don't think she came to that specific conclusion. For an extended metaphor about papers on desks, Pamela Sandstrom's, "An Optimal Foraging Approach to Information Seeking and Use" LIBRARY QUARTERLY 64(4):414-449 (OCT 1994) is worth a look.
posted by zepheria at 8:02 PM on June 1, 2010

Response by poster: Haven't found the one I am looking for yet. But these look really interesting, so thanks. Please keep the suggestions coming!
posted by Susurration at 8:18 PM on June 1, 2010

Have you tried printing out everything you've found so far, scattering the copies about on your desk, and waiting a week to look through them again?

(When I read about this, it was Gladwell's New Yorker article.)
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 8:30 PM on June 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

One of the classic papers on the topic is:

Malone, T. W. 1983. How do people organize their desks?: Implications for the design of office information systems. ACM Trans. Inf. Syst. 1, 1 (Jan. 1983), 99-112.

This paper describes a series of interviews focusing on the way professional and clerical office workers organize the information in their desks and offices. A number of implications for designing "natural" and convenient computer-based information systems are discussed.
Two principal claims are made: (1) A very important function of desk organization is to remind the user of things to do, not just to help the user find desired information. Failing to support this function may seriously impair the usefulness of electronic office systems, and explicitly facilitating it may provide an important advantage for automated office systems over their nonautomated predecessors. (2) The cognitive difficulty of categorizing information is an important factor in explaining how people organize their desks. Computer-based systems may help with this difficulty by (a) doing as much automatic classification as possible (e.g., based on access dates}, and (b) including untitled "piles" of information arranged by physical location as well as explicitly titled and logically arranged "files."
Several other implications for the design of electronic office systems are discussed, and some
differences in how people organize their desks are described.
posted by needled at 8:32 PM on June 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Not the Malone paper. The one I am seeking was definitely an Information/Library Science paper, rather than an Information Systems/HCI paper. More information-seeking process and less design-oriented. But thanks - another one for my TBR pile!

And yes, fantabulous timewaster, I have spent many happy hours rearranging the papers in my office. Sadly, if I could fit them all on my desk, I would be organized enough to have made a note of the paper reference at the time ... :-)
posted by Susurration at 8:55 PM on June 1, 2010

This reminds me of something in The Next Whole Earth Catalog. They had some little essays in the corner, one of them being a bunch of pieces discussing creativity and describing the creative process as being like a messy desk where ideas that might not come in contact with one another in a more orderly system get regularly shuffled together.

It would not stun me to learn that this was in reference to something else.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:31 PM on June 1, 2010

Not a paper, but How to get organized in spite of yourself talks about organisational styles based on personality. You seem to be the subtype 'Everything Out'. I use MeFi and other blogs for the random walk part: the questions and asnwers in their own right might not be so interesting, but they generate ideas for research.
posted by Eltulipan at 11:17 PM on June 1, 2010

Penelope Trunk wrote a post a while back about untidy desks, referencing several academic articles. Only one of her links goes directly to the article, but perhaps the other academic references will ring a bell with you.
posted by litnerd at 4:54 AM on June 2, 2010

Thanks to your question, I found out there was academic research on messiness:

Abrahamson, E. 2002 Disorganization Theory and Disorganizational Behavior: Towards an Etiology of Messes. Research in Organizational Behavior 24 139-180.
AbstractThis article develops a theory of messes, defined as disorderly accumulations of varied entities. More specifically, it examines disorder caused by individual, or collective human agents, in hierarchically-ordered and complex systems - systems composed of sub-systems that, in turn, have their own subsystems, and so on. Such hierarchical-complex systems include filing systems (filing cabinet, drawers, and folders), formal organizational systems (Presidents, Senior Vice Presidents, and Vice Presidents), as well as cognitive categorization systems (the category bird, big and small birds, big blue birds and so on). The article distinguishes different types of messes, their genesis, and their efficiency and effectiveness consequences, both negative and positive. Messes in offices are used at the individual level of analysis to illustrate the theory and the propositions derived from it, whereas messes in formal organizations are used to illustrate them at the collective level. The conclusion to the article raises the possibility that the theory and the propositions it suggests might be applicable to messes in cognitive systems and to the evolution of cognitive brain functions.

The author also wrote a more general book on the topic:
A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder - How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and on-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman.
posted by needled at 7:15 AM on June 2, 2010

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