Static flows

A few years ago, early in my transition from editor to IT goon, I had a weird experience that was formative of my IT persona in a lot of ways. I had to send email to a very busy director-level decision maker about some aspect of her program’s web presence. I don’t recall even a tiny detail of what the issue was, but I vividly remember the form of her reply.

I got back an email from her department’s admin person. Attached was a PDF file that turned out to be a scan of a printed copy of my email with Ms. Director’s reply penned onto the paper. Now maybe the director thought the admin would just open her email account and reply pretending to be her after keying in the note she’d written. Instead, the admin — quite sensibly, in my opinion — just sent along a copy of the reply in whatever format the boss had provided it.

So the workflow was clearly: Admin prints out the boss’s emails and leaves them for her to read as time allows, then boss scribbles responses and hands back the stack of papers to the admin. Admin scans the papers using that function of the office printer/fax machines, which email the attached PDFs they generate. Admin then opens her email, saves the attached file somewhere, and creates a new email to the original sender, attaching the scanned PDF.

This mind-boggling sequence got the needed glob of information to the right audience, the desired outcome. Processwise, apparently it made sense to these more or less sensible people. They are not stupid, they just find some way to work that accomplishes their immediate goal, then they move on to the next goal. I can understand the motivation, but it’s a pretty impossible user-support situation. And training for a better workflow would require increased comfort with technology on the part of both director and admin, as well as time in their killer schedules, and really just a perspective that the way information flows has some importance, beyond just getting the message to the audience. That improvement has happened to some extent over time — emails to the same director now seem to get her to open Outlook, read, and respond, all for herself. So I guess that’s a happy ending.

However, I’m a little puzzled when, years later, I submit an assignment to a professor in a leading MLIS program and I get in return a PDF file scanned from a printed copy of the file I submitted, with comments handwritten on the paper. That’s what was uploaded to the online collaboration tools supporting my distance education program. I’m unable to read all the comments because the scan cut off part of the page, and I’m currently deciding whether to ask for a better scan — if the paper hasn’t already been trashed, making that request an impossibility. Bigger picture, I’m wondering how I feel about the same workflow happening in those two environments, for which I have (or had) very different expectations.