Information architecture in a European dimension
Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats
Presented at the first European conference on Information Architecture
(October 15-26, 2005 - Brussels, Belgium)
For the first time, a pan-European conference in the field of Information Architecture (IA) is held. Compared to the activities and events on other continents in this field, Europe is 'a little late'. To say the least. More significant, the conference is not initiated and supported by an European organization, but by a US one. How clear can a picture be.
This talk will take an analytical but subjective approach to the current state-of-affairs of (continental) European IA. The local IA communities of practice, knowledge and interest seem still premature, fragmented and not well-connected. Even if there is such a thing as an European IA community, it lacks a solid identity and definitely a strategy.
As the narrative structure of this story, the well-known business analysis method of internal strengths and weaknesses combined with external opportunities and threats (SWOT) is followed. Or, as Louis Rosenfeld stated in the seminal Polar Bear book (p. 353), 'SWOT is the best-known model for strategy formulation'. Let's look at some sweeping SWOT statements that paint a possible strategy for European IAs.
European IAs hold definite strengths. They can build upon a long history in which questions of information, knowledge and the human condition have been connected to technology and architecture. EuroIAs - as we might call them - know the challenges and the value of living in a dynamic multilingual and multicultural world. And, they have a strong footprint in the emerging worlds of mobility, open source and the so-called 'Web 2.0 paradigm of participation'.
The historical dimension of European IAs
To start on the positive end, European IAs in general have a deep sense of history, knowledge and culture.
From a historical perspective, utopists from the beginning of the 20th century such as Paul Otlet (1868-1944) - a Belgian lawyer turned bibliographer and internationalist - has been influential as 'the man who wanted to classify the world'. With his friend Le Corbusier (1887-1965), they had valuable thoughts on the relation between knowledge and architecture. Otlet wanted to classify the world's knowledge into his 'Internal Network for Universal Documentation'. W. Boyd Rayward - a US historian of library and information science - even says about Otlet that '(...) his ideas have a historical role in our understanding of the emergence of the Internet and World Wide Web and the functionalities they represent that is as important as any of the roles attributed to such pioneering and iconic figures as H.G. Wells, Vannevar Bush, Ted Nelson and others.'
A more recent example of the historical importance of European tradition relates to the well-known user-centered design (UCD) approach. UCD has its roots in the intensive collaboration of Scandinavian academics and trade unions to improve the quality of life of workers during the 70s and 80s of the last century. This Scandinavian approach towards and practice of participatory design differs significantly from its US version. One of these differences refers to the Masculinity/Femininity dichotomy of Geert Hofstede's much cited framework of cultural assessment. For example, he positioned Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and The Netherlands occupying five of the last seven spots in the ranking (more feminine than all other rated countries) and Britain and the US listed in the top ten countries on the opposite end, to be quite masculine. Femininity approaching people's working life in context, whereas masculinity approaching it as individual parts and restricted to tasks at hand.
Multilingual, multicultural, and multidisciplinary
A second important strength of European IAs relates to the vivid and mixed multilingual and multicultural landscape they live in. European IAs understand more than others that language and culture significantly determine the perception of the world and how perceptions are based upon vast belief and value systems. For example, IAs from Europe know that whatever classification system is used - from simple to complex, from controlled vocabularies through taxonomies/thesauri to ontologies - underneath there are many biases. What George Lakoff has proven in his classic 'Women, Fire and Dangerous Things', many European IAs understand by nature.
Especially for globally branded companies, their deep understanding of the meaning and value of language and culture can contribute to a successful internationalization and globalization of an online presence. And not in the last place, a sensitivity to the multilingual and multicultural aspects makes European IAs important players and leaders of multidisciplinary teams.
Mobility, open source, and Web 2.0
A third, more technology oriented strength of euroIAs relates to the significant footprint within Europe of areas such as mobility, the open source movement, and the emerging Web 2.0 paradigm. Although in general the application of IA concepts, methods and tools within mobile design contexts is still rare and underdeveloped, there are several known mobile design projects in which European IAs played a leading role. Like many IAs, European IA's do not connect well with the technology geeks. However, they still do have a good feeling for important technology trends. Many European developers play an important role in the so-called 'open source movement'. With their tradition of participation, European IAs are definite candidates to become the advocates of the bottom-up and guerilla IA layers of the Enterprise Information Architecture, as Louis Rosenfeld outlined. Participation being also the essential ingredient for Web 2.0.
But, the (continental) European IA community suffers from severe weaknesses as well. They stem from a lack of coherence, the issue of 'defining the damn thing', and their limited verbal and written proficiency of English.
Lack of coherence
Although European IA's are flocking together at a local level regularly, the fragmentation of the community makes them incapable to act pro-actively and collectively. Yes, there are initiatives within the community to meet and to 'talk shop'. In Denmark, Belgium, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands, IA workshops, seminars, and even conferences have been held regularly. Many of these events were focused on the local market and mostly local IA participated in their local language. The common theme during many these events appears to be 'why management does not recognize the importance and added value of IA'.
Different connotations of the term 'IA'
The term IA is not always associated properly with the work European IAs can do in the virtual world. In many countries, the term is associated with an effective and efficient orchestration of information flows between information systems within an organization. In this context, there is a distinction between data (applications) and web content (sites). Or, as Gerry McGovern once said in his column 'Web content management is not data management': "Show a data manager a headline and he sees 60 characters." Many job postings carrying the label of information architect are situated within a data management environment.
Proficiency in verbal and written English
In many European countries, people learn English as a second language in school. However outside the school walls, getting into contact with English spoken by native speakers is limited. There is much diversity in the level of proficiency. Due to sometimes even explicit language policy of the state, some European countries do not subtitle English spoken TV series or movies. They just put a voice over in the local language. This results into a lack of appropriate verbal and written proficiency in the English language.
Whatever one thinks of it, English is the lingua franca of the information age. It is the language in which most explicit knowledge grows, the field of IA as well.
Although opportunities should be discussed first, in order to end with a positive note let's first look at some external threads.
The euroIA community does not live isolated. It is much influenced by its environment, which is currently not well-suited for a dynamic growth of (internet) business in general or the field of IA in particular. To put it mildly, the economy of Europe is currently in a bad state, there is no real IT or internet industry and the educational system hardly supports research and development of the field of IA.
It is a no-brainer to state that the European economy is in a real bad shape. Every country suffers because it becomes 'more grey and less green'. The globalization process and the emerging markets such as China and India are important, but more specifically the European attitude towards business, entrepreneurship and taking risks. Europeans usually prefer leisure time, vacations and a secure life over a demanding job, opportunities for growth, or material wealth. The macro-economic problems of European countries are a direct result of their lack of an entrepreneurial culture and flexibility, and bureaucracy which prevents any kind of innovation.
There is a significant lack of European industries involved in digital environments where the field of IA can flourish. In short, there are no pan-European versions of Microsoft, Apple, Sun, IBM, Google, eBay, or Amazon.
The state-run educational system
European educational institutions are very slow to integrate programs and courses on IA into their curricula. As a governance model, the European educational system is run by regional and local governments and unfortunately by committee as well. This situation results in very slow reforms and adaptations to demands of the market. So even when 'the market' would need IAs, there will be hardly any training program nor curriculum available.
Furthermore, brains from Europe move to find challenging and rewarding opportunities, which for many is in the US. Remarkable European examples are Linus Thorvald (.fi), Arthur van Hoff (.nl), and Kai Krause (.de). Or, to stay within our comfort zone, Jakob Nielsen (.dk). This process will continue, unless Europe 'gets its act together'.
This final section on opportunities will bring some 'light in the darkness'. The so-called 'Lisbon Strategy', some emerging strong local internet players, and growing recognition of the value euroIAs bring to the table are opportunities the community must take seriously.
The Lisbon Strategy
Stimulation of the knowledge society, innovation, and virtualisation by the Lisbon Agenda of the European Union will create many opportunities for European IAs. In 2000, the heads of state and government of the EU decided that 'by 2010, Europe must be the most dynamic and competitive economy in the world'. Europe must be transformed into the world's largest knowledge based economy.
This rather ridicule and megalomaniac ambition puts the focus on how Europe must change its structure in order to stay a player in the global economy. Although half way and the results are 'not very satisfactory' (to say the least), there are definite signs that governments are focusing more on the knowledge economy, on jobs for knowledge workers and on innovation and learning. Initiatives are taken and they will result in increasing opportunities for IAs to get a job, to practice information architecture and to contribute to the European dimension of the field.
Independent of the serious economic situation in Europe, the Lisbon Strategy provides a light at the end of the tunnel.
Emerging local players
A few emerging players in (continental) Europe are starting to identify user experience in general and information architecture in particular as a critical success factor of their online presence. Now that the internet bust has stabilized a bit, also in Europe, strong local internet players are emerging providing opportunities for IAs. Many players are just paying lip service to usability, findability or user experience, but some of them are serious. They even are starting to hire content-centered IAs. This process continues as more companies are getting aware that the rules of their playing field changed significantly in the last few years.
The value-add of euroIAs
Local and pan-European initiatives will continue to emerge and will strengthen the community of European information architects. Their project work, their ideas, methods, techniques and tools will not be unnoticed.
In short, the community of European IA's can establish a distinct identity by identifying what's unique and what's similar to other community members. Its external environment will determine a lot, but not all. That is a challenge for the IA community in Europe, which it must face.
Ruurd Priester (visual design) and Ronald Vendelmans (technology)