Is there such a thing as an information management counselor or coach?
February 13, 2015 12:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm not talking about "information management" in terms of corporate IT, which is all you find when you search on Google. I'm talking about someone to help me develop a sustainable plan to process the absurd amount of information that constantly bombards me. I figure I need someone who can help my develop reliable, efficient systems and also probably the mental toughness to keep doing it. I've looked at so many books, but my situation is beyond any one of them. I feel like I need someone who understands the psychology, systematizing , and technology of the matter.

TL;DR: I have so much information coming into me and being generated by me at work, that I feel that I need some sort of expert to help me work out a plan to handle it all. I need to make immediate progress.


I've talked about my job at length in other posts, so I'll jump into example how things work here, and why I'm just overwhelmed. I'm an engineer. Recently, after having at least half a dozen different people (not including me) working on a project, my boss/dad has fired most of them, and I need to step up and clean up everything that's been done so far. Fast. The unit ships very soon.

I know enough about the basic process and equipment philosophy of this unit to talk about it, but I need to dig into the details. The details of what's been designed, drawn, fabricated, etc. are all over the place. There are tons of emails. Most people copy me in, but not all of them. There are files on other people's computers. I have access to all of this because I'm the VP and IT manager as well (not by choice). So, I'll read an email. I'll download the attachments. Then, I'll want to take notes on the email: stuff I think is wrong, stuff I need to research more, stuff that's already been bought that I need to make do with, better ideas, due dates, etc. So just about every email to me is likely to produce more thoughts and usually more tasks that I want to record.

Then there are the various files scattered around. I need to collect them all together (time-consuming and difficult), then I need to go through them (very time-consuming), and take notes that I can pull up later (even more time).

Then there's research I need to do. I need to read books and papers and articles on this system design. I need to take notes.

Then I need to collect all my notes (which should include references to the original content, so I can go back to it), organize them into a coherent plan of attack, and then I need to make things happen.

Did I mention that I need to do this all extremely quickly? Oh, the reason for that is that people are always moving, always generating new content faster than I can review their old content, and there are guys in the shop building off of designs I haven't reviewed yet, and I don't want them to get too far if I find a major mistake.

Obviously, a company can't do this forever. In my current state, my sanity will last even less time. Still, I have got to fight against the riptide, until I can bring us back to shore, and then tell everyone including my dad "I'm in charge now. We're going to do things efficiently from now on, communicate well, centralize our information, not create 8000 revisions, not jump the gun on things, and if you don't like it, then I'm sorry, it's been nice knowing you." My dad would actually welcome me taking over.

This is where I feel like I need an expert to help me customize a plan of attack for all of this. Someone I can meet/talk/write/whatever with, and we can strategize on how to get to where I'm describing. Someone who read everything I just wrote, and instead of saying "quit your job" like most counselors do, says "Ok, I have some ideas. Let's start working on this immediately so you can make some serious progress by the time we meet again."

Is this a fantasy of mine? There have got to be people out there that have this stuff figured out. I would pay handsomely for them to help me figure it out. I just can't figure all it out myself, especially with things always moving. I need some serious help, and I'm pretty convinced no standard system out there like GTD or any of the others has the answer. And I want to attack the problem as opposed to trying skirt around it or run away from it completely. Thanks for any help you guys can provide.
posted by KinoAndHermes to Work & Money (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think this is a you problem, I think this is a business problem: you need a system or two for these to live in. And you may need to look at your role - sounds like you're the bottleneck in a couple of these processes, but if you could delegate some of your lower-value activities down the chain, that would free you up. Sounds like you want a management or business process consultant who's used to working with smaller orgs and/or manufacturing. And/or a project manager on an ongoing basis.

Happy to chat further if you want to memail, etc.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 12:15 PM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: chesty_a_arthur:

You're quite right. I admit to being a bottleneck. A lot of what's bottlenecking and spilling over is not quality work, though. My goal, since the I'm heir apparent to this company, is to try to expand the neck of the bottle (that's me being able to handle more things more efficiently) while reducing the backup (by eliminating a lot of the unusable work in the first place). It's a two-pronged approach, but in order to get to the point where I can get a handle on the second prong, I need to show some work on the first prong.

If I can show my boss that I'm reviewing a lot of what comes through and show him where the deficiencies are, that will go a long way towards him eliminating the people that cause those deficiencies and getting ones that I actually CAN delegate to. Unfortunately, right now, I'm pretty much the "expert" on just about any topic in the company, so the bottleneck role isn't exactly one I can avoid. I just have to handle it better until I eventually can get out of that role.

Thank you for your offer to chat; I may just take up on that.
posted by KinoAndHermes at 12:36 PM on February 13, 2015

Are you certain that Gravitational Time Dilation isn't the answer? </Wikipedia disambiguation page joke>

What you're describing sounds like what a secretary or executive assistant would do for someone, organizing and filing both documents coming from the outside and those you produce yourself and ensuring quick and easy retrieval. I would think that any advice a "coach" would give you will be very generic and would involve speculatively giving you "homework" that might cost time in the short run rather than save it, and so to accomplish anything quickly you'll need someone who already knows your business, even if they haven't marketed themselves as a coach. So I'd say, next time Dadboss goes to fire someone say "No, instead let me ask them to become my secretary." (Couched in more flattering terms to the person in question, of course, maybe throw around some fancy phrases like "business intelligence" and "process engineering", since the complex administrative work a secretary might do unfortunately has negative stigma attached to it, regardless of how important it almost universally is.)
posted by XMLicious at 12:48 PM on February 13, 2015

There are basically four tasks here:

1. Read email, come up with notes/thoughts/todos
2. Read files, come up with notes/thoughts/todos
3. Read system design research, come up with notes/thoughts/todos
4. Read all the notes/thoughts/todos and come up with more actions.

All this boils down to:
-gather information
-take notes/thoughts/todos on it, sorted by subject area for easy review
-be able to link back to the old information for reference
-review the notes you've taken

Keep it simple.

Here's what you need:
-an application for notes. This could be an outliner. OmniOutliner is good for the Mac. Or Scrivener (a writing app) also has very powerful note-taking and outlining tools, and is for both Windows and a Mac. Or frankly you could just use a Word document and use Word's outlining features if you're comfortable with them.
-a to-do list application. Use whatever you're reasonably happy with. Outlook is fine. Omnifocus for the Mac is fine. Don't get too caught up in searching for the perfect technology.
-a repository for information. I'd keep this simple. You already have an email program: that's your email repository.

All the rest are just files -- from the web or whatever. For that stuff, create a folder or directory -- your master directory. Create a subdirectory for each of your major projects ("unit files", "system design", etc.). Under each one you can create another subdirectory for unread stuff, and other subdirectories for particular little tags or topics.

As you encounter files, drop them in one of the unread folders. As you read them, take notes in your note-taking application with a citation to the filename; if necessary, create todos; and then move the file into another tagged subdirectory.

For emails, create the same system of folders or tags in your email program. If there are emails that you need to read later, mark them or tag them. Otherwise, if they need to be categorized, create a few categories, just like you did with the folders.

As you read the emails, if you have notes, put them in your note-taking application with a copy of the subject line and date/time stamp (that should uniquely identify the email). If you have todos, put them into the todo program.

If you're reading books or articles, just put the title in your note-taking program and all your notes under it.

At the end of it all, you should have a bunch of notes in your note-taking application and a bunch of todos in your todo application and everything should be easy to go back and reference.

You could use various personal information managers as well if you felt the need, but it's not really necessary. Feel free to memail if you have more questions.
posted by shivohum at 1:30 PM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

My understanding of what this boils down to, and correct me if I'm wrong, is that you have unreliable employees and no authority, despite being a Vice President and the owner's kid. This is causing you to have to personally pick up the slack in a lot of different areas, mostly outside of your expertise. If you make a heroic effort and save a project, you may finally assert yourself, take over the business from your father, and clean house.

I think that you are asking for a technical bandaid to what is really a management problem.
A lot of what's bottlenecking and spilling over is not quality work, though. ...
If I can show my boss that I'm reviewing a lot of what comes through and show him where the deficiencies are, that will go a long way towards him eliminating the people that cause those deficiencies and getting ones that I actually CAN delegate to.
I assume "not quality work" is a euphemism for mistake-filled garbage. You seem to be asking about how to get really good at processing garbage, so you can pile up a lot of garbage, clean it up and make it presentable, ship it out, then point to where the garbage pile was and say "Hey, we've gotta do something about that garbage truck that keeps dumping here." Having made a bad hire before and cleaned up after him for months I can tell you, don't do that. What will end up happening is that your boss will say "what garbage? I don't see any garbage lying around" and nothing will change. Instead, make it an issue that you are being given garbage. It is the person's job who gave you that garbage to clean it up, and it is your job as a manager to not accept delivery of garbage and proceed with PIPs and firings if things don't turn around. You already know that something is wrong, make sure your boss knows it too. Don't "build your case", don't let your devotion to a high quality product let you fix things before anyone else knows there's a problem, address it now.

If you really feel like you have to review and track everything, try a ticketing system like Jira (most enterprisey) or emacs org-mode (most technical) or any of the millions of others.

I looked through your question history a bit and it seems like you've been having related problems for quite a while. This must be very frustrating for you. I hope you have someone you can vent to. Feel free to MeMail me too if you need another anonymous Internet person to blow off steam to.
posted by books for weapons at 6:57 PM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

No one can begin to address this kind of question without knowing the first answer: Mac or Windows?
posted by yclipse at 3:16 AM on February 14, 2015

Yeah, dang, my company has way too many systems that have been built specifically to handle this problem: document mgmt systems, sharepoints, wikis, issue tracking systems, control documents, mind maps, spreadsheets, plans of record, kanban boards (both stickies and electronic). It's a mess.

However, my current ray of hope is this: one team of which I'm a member is using a system called Asana ( I have no affiliation with the company, I'm just a customer. Rather than describe it, I'll point you to a video (on their home page, half way down the page) and a couple of blog posts.

It's working for us, quite well, in fact. It doesn't solve all our problems, but it does save us a lot of time, and eliminates a lot of confusion.

Check it out.
posted by at at 7:56 AM on February 14, 2015

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