Information Sharing in Academia

Most people have the perception that Colleges and Universities are bastions of information sharing and free thinking. Before I became familiar with higher education institutions as a student and a staff member, I had the same misconception.

Today, a story broke about how Marquette university suspended a student for posting a negative tidbit about one of his teachers on a blog. Its amazing how many people have misconceptions about free speech. Free speech may save you, and let me emphasize MAY, from government retribution, but it has no bearing on private organizations.

So lets say for instance, an employee of Google writes something semi-negative about their job environment, Google can fire them on the spot. When it comes to termination of employment, rank and file employees have many misconceptions about how and why they can be fired. In most states, an employee can be fired for anything. 60 minutes did a great expose a few weeks ago on employees fired for smoking outside of work hours and an employee who has fired for drinking Coors at a bar off duty because he worked for a Bud distributor.

Working on information sharing applications for academia, when I demonstrate or discuss the features of LionShare one of the first questions I get is “how can restrict who sees shared files?” Academia loves to adopt information sharing technologies and then stuff in access restrictions.

A lot of organizational units are now adopting wikis and blogs as a means to share information, but they want to restrict access based on units. Ask people why they feel the need to restrict access to small group, and they will give you the most unlikely use case possible. Its almost a law of sort that people are irrational and irrational people will make major decisions based on the most unlikely feasible use case.

Division A
Unit1 wiki(mediawiki) | Unit2 wiki(twiki) | Unit 3 wiki(dokuwiki)
Unit 1 blog | Unit2 mailing list | Unit 3 portal

To use a non-technical example ask someone who bought an SUV with 6 person+ seating why they need such a big SUV. You will get a variety of answers using a bizarre use case. The typical one involves camping once a year or some other rare use case. My favorite is when someone buys a Jeep Grand Cherokee because of snow. Why must people drive an SUV for the snow, when any car with all wheel drive will have the same snow performance? People are irrational and they will rationalize their decisions by pointing the most unlikely use case.

Getting back to technology, it makes a lot more sense to focus on the most likely use case. In the case of wikis, blogs, and file sharing applications it makes a lot more sense to grant access to as many people as possible. Technologies like wikis and blogs are meant to disseminate information to wide audience and allow people to publish and comment easily. In organizations that have strong divisions between small units, it makes absolutely no sense to restrict information at a unit level except in some extreme circumstances.

In those cases where information absolutely needs to be restricted, it makes a lot more sense to use existing technologies such as e-mail, rather than to discourage the sharing of information on a division level by having wikis for each particular organizational unit. It also make a lot more sense to standardize on one technology installed at a division level, instead of having each fiefdom use their own solution.

1 comment

  1. LeoPetr December 8, 2005 11:31 pm 

    Ah, yes. Like the way my parents bought a big-ass barbecue this spring so as to have lots of people over in the summer, and then only used it twice. Getting delivery every time they had a barbecue craving for the rest of their life would be cheaper.:P

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