Dealing with Shapelessness

By David Alan Rech of Scribe Inc.


Publishers often find themselves perplexed because they cannot put their finger on exactly what is wrong, though they know things are not right. This, cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken tells us, is evidence of what he calls the shapeless problem. The biggest problem facing organisations is their inability to define the problems they face.

Often their troubles actually result from a cumulation of many disparate small things, none of which in itself could bring an organization to a standstill. Collectively the problem’s size, complexity, and amorphous nature make it impossible to identify or solve. The shapeless problem arose with a clash of paradigms (traditional publishing running up against electronic publishing), the introduction of new technologies, the globalization of markets, the increased speed of change, and a loss of footing as the cultural ground on which we stand rapidly shifts.

Our inability to conquer the shapeless problem stems in part from expecting those with specialised knowledge and skills to solve it for us. Consequently, planning and strategy are dead, and organizations are in a state of perpetual anxiety, incapable of figuring out their shapeless problem. Although this problem is relatively new, Scribe has been addressing it on several fronts since our inception in 1993. In the face of a shapeless problem, the best place to start, suggests McCracken, is the exact opposite of specialisation—that is, turn to people who have a liberal arts education, read widely, and can think critically and creatively. At Scribe, we’ve always tried to hire people who can think for themselves, have a proclivity to absorb and assimilate new information, know how to relate and collaborate with others, and can develop creative solutions to problems that arise.

The primary skill for addressing the shapeless problem, which is predicated on a liberal arts education, is pattern recognition: the ability to perceive patterns in massive amounts of data and make sense of those patterns based on a broad exposure to the world. Scribe’s Well-Formed Document Workflow (WFDW) equips people to solve publishing problems based on the ability to perceive structure in content—a skill we develop in all our new hires from their first day. We help publishers solve the shapeless problem, in particular, by giving shape to the challenges they face. Employing the WFDW, Scribe helps publishers identify patterns (i.e., the relationships between elements of a document, repeated tasks or behaviour, recurrent problems or failures), articulate the assumptions guiding their perception of everything within the publishing realm, and give definition to what was previously shapeless. On an operational level, we produce well-formed documents whose elements are treated consistently, create procedures to minimise redundancy, and build the technology to automate tasks with recognisable patterns.

Publishers don’t have time to be stymied by a shapeless problem. Deal with shapelessness by using Scribe’s WFDW. Your problem may be shapeless, but Scribe’s solution is well formed. To find out more, contact us anytime.