Time for virtual spring cleaning

This commentary is about personal information management, which means more than just clearing out the cache and dumping files from the recycle bin. It's time to organize your knowledge resources, including newsletters, books, magazines, Web sites and e-mail.

It's time to do a little virtual spring cleaning.

Simplify online

You may be able to make more efficient use of your time by bookmarking a few good sites and portals that compile pertinent information than trying to track it all down for yourself. A couple of good examples are HiCitizen and Personal Logic.

A very good "logic" tool is really an alternative navigational resource — such as the VA HyperFAQ that Basil White developed for the Department of Veterans Affairs Web site and featured in this space April 26. It enables you to answer a series of yes/no questions to arrive at a handful of Web addresses that will guide you to the information you seek.

The VA HyperFAQ is worth reviewing for many reasons, including its inherent accessibility in terms of Section 508 Web site rules, ease of use (and development), and its ready applicability to other government sites.

Clear Out the Inbox

A lot of good resources probably exist in your bookmarks folder and your inbox — their initial purpose long forgotten.

In managing your personal information, specialization is the first consideration. Having too many interests contributes to the mounting pile of must-reads that are never read. I've seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa and it's the overflowing pile of paper on my desk. It was the "I'll deal with it later" heap that I'd get to when I had some free time.

As an exercise, I wanted to see how far back my own pile went and what was included. It went back to January, and it contained well over a dozen trade weekly magazines and journals, not including printouts, books to review and newsletters.

The electronic inbox is even worse.

This stockpiling doesn't serve any purpose. Here are a few tips to reduce the current pile in your inbox (both real and virtual):

  • For weeklies, anything older than three weeks old is out.
  • For monthlies, keep the issues from this month and last month.
  • Newsletters should be scanned; keep only the last three issues.
  • For Web sites, bookmark the "what's new" section and/or subscribe to the newsletter.
  • If you are involved in too many discussion groups, subscribe to the digest (most digests are delivered once a day with a summary of headings).

Information Hoarding

Even though you may reduce the paper pile or number of e-mail messages you have stored, information hoarding is still a hurdle to overcome. If information sits with you, like in the pile I described, then no one benefits.

Think about who else in the organization is working in similar content area and share the wealth of information.

One of the hurdles of knowledge management is holding on to information in the mistaken belief that it leads to job security. By becoming a fountain of knowledge, or even just a babbling brook of informational tidbits, being seen as a reliable resource who's on top of current trends is important for personal and organizational improvement.

But stovepiping prevents dissemination of important information, and that can't be good. It's not just withholding the latest issue of a journal — it's really the creation of the artificial burden of taking on too much. Why bother stockpiling a journal when you haven't used the information in ages? You may know what your colleagues don't know, but it's a two-way street. They might know about the one resource that turns the corner for you, that program that solves all your problems could be in the head of a colleague two doors down.

So, I recommend letting go and picking your areas of interest based on what's current and critical. Specialize and let the information flow.

Specialize

Specialization relieves the burden of accumulating too much stuff and fosters a spirit of teamwork. To be a generalist really just isn't possible. How many of those newsletters do you really need to subscribe to? How many of those magazine subscriptions can you let lapse? Has it been a couple of years since you worked on the project that prompted signing up for that subscription?

Here are some tips to help you decide what to let go and what to do with it:

  • If you have more than six issues of a weekly that are of no interest, let the subscription lapse. Tell a colleague or trash the older ones responsibly (recycle when possible).
  • If you have more than three issues of a monthly that you don't want to read, let the subscription lapse. If you know of a colleague who could benefit, send in the refer-a-friend card. Donate the rest of the issues to your colleague or organization's library.
  • Newsletters can easily be passed on even if you want to maintain the subscription. For hard-copy newsletters, highlight the blurbs of interest with a sticky note and pass it on.
  • In your Web browser, create folders that are meaningful to you and sort your bookmarks into those folders. Put the ones you use most in your browser's shortcut bar so they're always at your fingertips.
  • If e-newsletters and digests come to your mailbox, filter them, and then make the time every morning to skim through the newsletter folder. Unsubscribe to the ones you consistently don't read. The ones you really want to keep can periodically be exported to a database, and that opens a whole new world of options.

Pass it on

Now that you're organized, pass on the information. Tell a story. Refer a friend. Read a good article? Don't photocopy it, don't print it out — e-mail it. Use the "e-mail a friend" feature that many online journals have and let a colleague know about a good article you've read. If that's not available, cut and paste the link into the e-mail. In either case, put in a sentence or two about why the link is relevant. Make it specific, more than FYI, but highlight the important finding in paragraph two that affects the current project.

Tang is a Web designer in the Information Technology Group at Caliber Associates, Fairfax, Va. Her e-mail address is tangb@ix.netcom.com.

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