Friday, May 30, 2008


Post-It "Signatures" Aren’t Signatures

On any given day I use credit cards, write checks, request reimbursements, approve time sheets, or complete this or that form. Each of these activities requires me to sign a paper document. When transactions and requests like these are moved online, I no longer sign with pen on paper, but I still am required to produce an electronic signature, perhaps literally with a stylus of some sort or analogically with a login and password. The point is the same – I need to provide irrevocable proof that I am who I claim to be when I authorize some action to be taken on my behalf.

That's why I was astonished this week to read this week (in a 27 May 2008 NY Times article by Carter Dougherty titled "Ex-manager tells of bribery at Siemens") about the scheme allegedly used to approve bribe payments. Over 1.3 billion euros worth of suspicious transactions over the past seven years have been identified (for those of you who haven't been following the collapse of the dollar's value, that's 2.1 billion US). And according to Reinhard Siekaczek, a former Siemens middle manager who faces 58 charges of "breach of trust" and is cooperating with prosecutors, he built up "slush funds" by paying for bogus consulting charges so that bribe payments could be made to win contracts.

But the role of Post-Its in the bribery process defies logic. People signed Post-Its and attached them to the documents needed to carry out the bribes, That way, according to Siekaczek:

The signatories could elegantly remove signs of their involvement if it came to an investigation.

Now I know that languages are living things, and concepts continually evolve. That's why we recognize that a "signature" no longer assumes a quill pen and inkwell, but can also be performed with a ballpoint pen or electronic stylus. But I think that an intrinsic part of any notion of "signature" is that signatures are intended to be permanently embedded or affixed to the documents being signed. There is just no way that anyone at Siemens who ever signed a Post-It could rationalize that this was an appropriate mechanism for authorizing or recording a business transaction, especially one involving such significant amounts of money.

Unless, of course, they had been informed of a new policy at Siemens that established Post-It signatures as equivalent to traditional ones. Given the 270 suspects that prosecutors have identified, including four former members of the top executive group, this new policy would have had to come from high up in Siemens. Would the document describing this new policy have been signed with a Post-It?

-Bob Glushko

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Unleashing the Masters of Information

We've just had our annual commencement at the School of Information at UC Berkeley, which means we are unleashing another class of "masters of information" on the world. I've always thought it was a little odd for us to be called the School of information, but that's the name (and we're not alone). I hope that all schools at Berkeley are schools of information (as opposed to "disinformation"or "misinformation"), but given what we do and teach here if any academic unit on campus were to use that name it could only be us.

Instead of a master's thesis, which is required by many professional degree programs at Berkeley, the ISchool requires a final project, which is almost always a 2-4 person team effort extending over a couple of semesters. This year there were 16 final projects sorted into three categories. The mix of final projects reflects the wonderful intellectual and curricular diversity here, but a handful are especially relevant to the topics I post about on this blog -- so go back and follow the link to the project list.

I'm very proud to say that the two projects that I advised
were singled out
by outside judges as prize winners:

MD:Notes was named the best project in the "Information System Implementation" category. The students were Zach Gillen (the Teaching Assistant in my Document Engineering course), Jill Blue Lin, and Kate Ahern.

Our product, MD:Notes, is a prototype for an application that improves the hospitals' processes for creating and retrieving progress notes.

Our primary motivation for the project was to better understand how public hospitals are making the transition from paper to electronic records, and to design a solution that addresses the hospitals' needs. Specifically, we focused on how two public hospitals in the Bay Area work with progress notes.

Progress notes are notes written by a physician to describe the patient's condition during the visit, the physician's assessment and plans for treatment. These notes are an important part of a patient's medical history. Taken as a whole, they tell a rich narrative about a patient's medical past. A progress note is one component of a patient's record consisting of many pieces of clinical documentation.

A Digital Clean Slate received the runner-up project award in the "Information Policy and Management"category. The students were Evynn Testa-Avila and Chris Volz.

When potentially derogatory information is dismissed from a person's record in the court system, the dismissal is not always registered immediately with various Corporate Data Brokers (CDBs) who provide background checks to employers. This means that errors can appear in background checks and jeopardize chances at employment. In this paper, we present the results of a pilot study that looks at the flow of information from public court records to CDBs and then to employers and job applicants. Of particular interest is how and when errors may be introduced into these records and how processes and systems can be improved to avoid or minimize such errors.

Both of these projects did very careful and thoughtful document and process analysis in complex environments -- I've called this "document anthropology and archeology" because it involves an iterative cycle in which documents or other information sources may refer or link to other documents, or to people, who can refer to other people or to other documents, and so on.

It is very rewarding each year to see the really interesting work that students do here and to contribute to it as a teacher and research advisor. But that always gives me mixed emotions, because it makes me look forward to the next class. So congrats to Zach, Jill, Kate, Evynn, Chris and the rest of the class of 2008, but you have to leave now to make room for class of 2010, so be sure to empty out your lockers in the graduate student lounge.

-Bob Glushko

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Document Engineering and User Experience Design

This past week (8 May 2008) at the DocTrainWest conference in Vancouver I gave a keynote talk titled "Document Engineering and User Experience Design."

My talk was based on some evolving ideas I've called "Bridging the Front Stage and Back Stage" in a paper and talks over the last year. The contrast and conflict I've been thinking and talking about is between information system designers with a "user experience" perspective and those with a "back end" or systems and data analysis perspective. People with the UX mindset focus on the interactions or encounters that people have with systems and services, and thus intentionally or unintentionally discount the contribution of the "back stage" work where materials or information needed by the front stage are processed. For example, if you analyze a web shopping experience from the front stage point of view, you emphasize usability and visual design considerations and don't think about the information exchanges between warehouses, shippers, banks and so on who have to work together if what you order is going to arrive on time. A great user experience on the web site doesn't mean squat if this back stage "content choreography" goes wrong.

So I've been saying that it is essential to consider the entire network of services that comprise the back and front stages as complementary parts of a "service system." We need new concepts and methods in service design that recognize how back stage information and processes can improve the front stage experience.

My DocTrain talk didn't say very much that was new, but I adapted my message to the technical writing and content management crowd a bit. I just said that another way to think about the front stage fixation is that it gives too much credit to user interface designers for the user experience, and not enough to people who design (and communicate) the documents and document choreography that are necessary to make the end-to-end system work. I'm not trying to take credit away from user interface designers, but they need to appreciate that the back end folks deserve some too.

This adapted message resonated with the DocTrain crowd. I had MIT Press ship 2 boxes (32 copies) of the paperback edition of my Document Engineering book for me to do a book signing after my talk, and the books sold out with people standing in line. Many of them then went and ordered the book on Amazon, and this jump in sales drove the book to #3000 for a short time (it has now recovered from this hyperstimulation in sales and is much lower now). And I'm flattered to discover today that several people have blogged positively about my DocTrain talk.

Antoine Giraud: "Content Choreographers Unite"

Anne Gentle

Sarah O'Keefe

So thanks for the encouragement. I hope that Scott Abel invites me to talk again at DocTrain.

-Bob Glushko

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