Scoping the knowledge work data layer

I’ve been nibbling around the notion of the data layer of knowledge work for some time. We’re accustomed to talking about deliverables in knowledge work. I’ve argued about the problems of visibility in knowledge work and the benefits of making knowledge work observable. Lately, I’ve started to explore the realm of working papers and intermediate knowledge work artifacts.

Three broad layers are emerging in my model of the data layer:

  • Deliverables: Presentations, reports, infographics, e-books, or any other self-contained package designed to be left in the hands of a client or the public. The notion of a deliverable is a powerful organizing idea, although it sometimes implies that anything not a deliverable isn’t relevant.
  • Working papers: Spreadsheets, process flows, trip reports, design sketches, use cases, statistical models, simulations or any other intermediate work product useful to an individual knowledge worker or to a project team. Working papers may or may not be shared with others.
  • Notes: Everything else. Interview notes, reading notes, journal entries, outlines, mindmaps, whiteboards, marked up placemats from breakfast meetings, or any other external representation that helps a knowledge worker capture or elaborate an idea.


Since we’re thinking about data, we also have to deal with what metadata is necessary or useful to maintain. If you work down from the deliverables layer, the default choice is to group deliverables by project. If you do knowledge work for any length of time, project information grows complex. Any given project might be part of ongoing work for a particular client.

On the other hand if you work up from notes, other metadata questions surface. While you might be able to identify a project, notes and note taking often happen before you have a specific project in mind. Do you collect or preserve metadata about the source of a note—is a note about an interview with a client, your thoughts about something you’re currently reading, or connected to some ongoing topic of interest? ‘

Working papers can be carved out of bigger deliverables or bubble up from the notes layer as your thinking develops. Which suggests that these metadata requirements will be a blend of the layers above and below.

The point of collecting this metadata is to make the proliferation of materials in the data layer manageable. Extracting and reporting on metadata ought to make it easy to monitor the developing status of the collection of notes, working papers, and deliverables that comprise an active project. How many interviews have we completed? Have we tracked down the data for the regression analysis we are about to perform? How many uses cases have we identified? How many have been written? Reviewed?

Formality and Explicitness

For one person working on a single project, this seems to be an inordinate amount of fuss and worry about something you can keep track of in your head or informally by reviewing an inbox or browsing a file directory. For large scale efforts by large teams, it might pay to invest in full time staff and formal systems.

For the middle arena where we spend the bulk of our time, the temptation is to rely on informal methods and practices. That’s a mistake. A better choice is to invest some thought and effort into making these distinctions and introducing a modicum of formality.


I’ve worked on these notions in a number of place. There’s a lot of other, excellent, work in this realm; I’ll save that for another day and another blog post. This list is chronological: