The social life of paper (Irrational Software)

When it comes to doing planning in XP, some people react against the use of index cards. They are convinced that it’s better to type things up in a Word document and place it on the intranet. The reason for this is that they mix up storing of information with creative thinking. This is what Malcolm Gladwell’s article The Social Life of Paper, is about.

He looks at how paper is used by various professionals – air-traffic controllers, economists at IMF and buyers at a chocolate manufacturer – and points to the fact that paper is better than computers in the task of supporting knowledge and creative processes. In the case of the chocolate company buyers, he writes “These materials therefore supported rather than consituted the expertise of the buyers. In other words, the knowledge existed not so much in the documents as in the heads of the people who owned them.”

This is what planning on index cards in XP is about! The cards are merely tokens to support the knowledge about the plan, and the creative process that planning is. There’s a lot of confusion regarding the planning game that I think stems from the fact that people are stuck with the idea that they store information on the cards. Once you realize that you’re creating a tool to support planning, you can see the benefits of using cards.

Gladwell writes, “It is only if paper’s usefulness is in the information written directly on it that it must be stored. If its usefulness lies in the promotion of ongoing creative thinking, then, once that thinking is finished, the paper becomes superfluous.” In the case of the air-traffic controllers – who use small “flight strips” to represent each plane, on which they write things like altitude and destination – he writes, “Is it any wonder that the modernization of the air-traffic-control system has taken so long? No one wants to do anything that might disrupt that critical mental process.”

So, in the context of XP planning, we should be as eager not to replace paper with digital documents as the ATC people. In XP Applied, the authors describe how they need the cards during release planning, but then transfer them to a project Wiki, where they more easily can track the progress of the project.

As I read this paper, I thought about what signifigance the informality of paper has – besides the benefits that come from it being a physical thing. Digital information systems tend to be very formal, with schemes for organizing the information to facilitate searching, and so on. In a creative process, I think the informality is important. My experience is that the informality of Wikis help support creativity, transferring story cards to a Wiki seems to be a smaller step than entering them into Visio. Maybe something is lost on the way?

The above was posted to my personal weblog on May 23, 2002. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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