Filtering Labor

This is either a subset of interpretive labor or a closely related concept: Filtering Labor.  Suppose one person is generating information, and another person needs a small subset of it, or needs the information in aggregate but not specific pieces.  Who does the labor to filter it down?

Let’s talk about this in a work context.  Recently I was on a thread with four other people.  Everyone needed to get the original few letters, and everyone needed to know the final decision.  But in between those two were 5 or 10 e-mails nailing down some specifics between me and one other person.  The others needed to know the decisions we made, but reading the back and forth was of no value to them.  Nonetheless, they stayed on the thread.  This wouldn’t be such a big deal if they only checked their e-mail once a day because they could skim through the thread, but that’s not how much people check e-mail, and I know it’s not how these particular people were handling this thread, because there were other messages in the same thread that required and received a near-instant response from them.

We could have saved them effort by taking them off the thread, and re-adding them when they were needed, with a summary of the decision.  But that requires looking at every message and thinking “who needs to see this?” What if a message is mostly unrelated to them but not entirely?  How do I know if a decision is finalized enough to be worth summarizing it to them?  It didn’t apply in this particular case, but my general experience at work is that the best moment to send out the summary- when everything has been more or less settled- does not draw attention to itself.  You just go two days without having to make a decision.  Not to mention that knowing what is relevant to others requires information about them- who filters that?

This only gets worse as companies grow.  My job is clearly terrified there will be something somewhere in the company that would be useful to me and I won’t know about it.  One solution would be to make things easy to find when I wanted to look for them (a pull-based system).  You can do some of this with good archiving and search tools, but to make it really work it requires effort from the information producers or some sort of archivist.  Things like tagging, summaries, updating the wiki.  Information producers rarely want to put in this effort (in part because of a justified belief it’s just going to change again next week.  But by the time that’s identifiably not true, the relevant information has faded from memory).  You can attempt to force them but it hurts morale and it really is going to be obsolete in a week.

So my job, and I believe a lot of other large software companies, uses a push system.  I’m on dozens of email lists giving me a stream of updates on what people are doing, sometimes very far away in the org.  I tried to make a list to convey to you all the lists I am on, but it is impossible.  Making the collected output of these lists useful often requires a lot of interpretive labor (e.g. translating a changelist into what a tool actually does and how it might relevant to me).  That takes time, and the farther away from me something in the org is, the more time it takes.  At this point there is no way I could thoughtfully process all of my mail and get anything else done.  It looks like information is being spread more widely, but the signal to noise ratio is so low I’m learning less.

The open office is an attempt to do the same with in person interactions- if people won’t seek out others to give them information they need (in part because they don’t know who needs it or who has it), make it impossible to not overhear.  We know what I think about that.

Some of this comes from a failure to adapt to circumstances.  When you start a company everything anyone does is relevant to you and you will always know about it without any effort on anyone’s part.  As you add people everything is still pretty relevant to them, but it takes more effort to find out about it.  Start-ups start using stand-ups or mailing lists.   The bigger they get, the more effort goes into sharing information.  For a while this doesn’t cost a lot in processing.  People have a certain amount of slack in their day (compiling, between meetings) and everything is close enough to what they work on that it’s easy to interpret.  But peoples projects grow more and more distant, and eventually you run out of slack.  After that every additional piece of information you give them beyond that comes at the cost of them producing actual work.

Which doesn’t mean you should stop: maybe it saves more work than it creates.  But I wish companies recognized the effort this required and started thinking more strategically about what was truly useful. There are already specialists that do parts of this under various names (Project/program manager, technical writer, manager, tech lead), if this was made explicit I think we could save people a lot of effort.

2 thoughts on “Filtering Labor

  1. I think this problem comes from a couple of bad tendencies:

    – People don’t seem to natively have a concept of filtering labor; they treat propagating and processing information as basically free (probably because propagating/processing each individual piece of info is very inexpensive). Actually, processing, curating and propagating information correctly is a super hard problem.

    This is one of the underrated skills that people who are really “good at networking” have–to maintain a large network, you need to be good at propagating info to and from the right people–and one reason that people think of networking as sleazy/annoying by default is that they don’t model this as a valuable skill.

    – People aren’t willing to let things fall through the cracks. If you’re thinking about how your organization communicates, you’re probably not going to try to find a solution that gets everyone 95% of the information you need–you’re going to try to find a 100% solution, even if the 95% solution takes 50% of the attention/time.

    When people imagine what would happen if they reduced the email volume, it’s very easy to imagine “oh, what if someone who needed this tool update didn’t see the latest changeset?” and very hard to imagine the benefits of saving 10 seconds of time per person from not reading that one changeset.

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