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What Mary Poppins can teach us on Information Management

Let’s play a game together. Come on, it is going to be fun.

I want you to picture your wardrobe in your mind. Now open it. What do you see? Clothes is my best guess. But can you picture every single piece of clothing neatly? In what order are they more or less organized?

Some of you will say: “Yeah, totally. If you start from the left you have blue jackets, then white shirts, then the blue ones, and finally some black ones. I hide the Hawaiian shirt my stepmother got me from her trip to Malaga in the upper right drawer.” Well if that’s your case, congratulations! You can already provide a much more accurate description of your wardrobe content than many of us.

Let’s take this to the next level. How many white shirts do you have? Maybe 7? Are they all the same? If not, how would you describe them? You don’t give names to your shirts, do you? Chances are you will say something like: “Well, there is the one I got from that store around the corner, then the one with black dots on the collar…” and so on.

Now imagine I’m walking into your house. I must get you a specific white shirt. How are you going to make sure I choose the right one? Surely, there is no way I could find “the one you bought from the store around the corner”. I wasn’t there. I could make more sense of “the one with black dots on the collar”, but is it specific enough?

Ok, let’s say I find it. We made it, yeah! You can pat yourself on the shoulder.

Let’s get this even more exciting now. Imagine I give you a Mary Poppins bag and tell you to put all your clothes in it. Bye bye wardrobe! But here is the challenge: somebody — anybody — should be able to retrieve from the bag any piece of clothing at any given time.

Test it with your partner, kid, grandmother, dog, all of them. Ask them to find the dark blue jacket inside the Mary Poppins bag. You soon realize your partner chose the black jacket, your kid ignored the rules and picked the Hawaiian shirt, your grandmother got the actual dark blue jacket for some reason, and your dog is still staring at you in awe.

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It means that yes, you should start giving names to your shirts at this point. Names that should both be clear and self-explanatory. Ouch. Good luck with that.

Relax, it is just a game. We won’t ask you to place all your clothes in a Mary Poppins bag. She wouldn’t let us play with it anyway. But let’s get to your information organization: is it a wardrobe or a Mary Poppins bag? Are you able to retrieve whichever information, wherever and whenever you need it? And when you do, how can you be sure that you got your hand on the right document, contract, video or webpage?

The wardrobe contains your files. All sorts of files. The Mary Poppins bag is your file management system. You know that names and structure should be clear and self-explanatory. And yet, before you know it, your director brought the wrong file to the board, John from HR accidentally spit your employees personal data all over the intranet, Margaret from finance followed your instructions clearly for some reason, and Bobby the IT guy is staring at you with tears in his eyes because he is convinced your new system is ruining five years of hard labor.


Don’t worry, it’s not your fault (well, not entirely). It boils down to this very simple fact: files are handled by human beings. So are information, organization, and knowledge. And that very simple fact can make your life a nightmare if you fail to take it into account. But you won’t.

By now, you know better. You know that you need bullet-proof architecture for your information, just like you need a house with doors and walls that won’t fall upon your face every time you sneeze. Like you need a map to travel around a new city. A calendar to organize meeting slots, random haircuts, me-time, and fortunately remember your mother’s birthday.

Could your organization answer this very basic question: who has access to what until when and from where? If you can name and count all the human beings and files it applies too, well, you are basically a superhero. By “human beings”, we mean employees, suppliers, remote workers, contractors, alumni… everyone. By “files”, we mean paper and electronic documents, data, user manuals, agendas, books, restaurant menus… everything.

You can share a file quite easily these days, choose your poison: email, SharePoint, WhatsApp, social media, etc. Unfortunately, you can’t access information that people don’t share. They might be lazy, sick, grumpy, or worse. Still, it is your job to build an ongoing system where knowledgeable people are encouraged to develop, share and record what they know.

Remember it all started with your wardrobe? It is up to you and your teams to make a Mary Poppins dream come true!

Please feel free to comment below or via Twitter@MarieLaenen

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