Vol. XX, No. 2
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Fall, 2007

Process Matters

Harrison Eiteljorg, II
(See email contacts page for the author's email address.)

Robert Rubin was the Secretary of the Treasury under President Bill Clinton; he has written a book about his experience in the financial world and government called In an Uncertain World (New York, 2003). On pages 114 and 115 of the paperback version he had this to say: "My experience in Washington strongly reinforced my view that good process makes good policy. And a fair, open process is more likely to result in participants buying into decisions with which they may differ."

It may seem strange to quote a business/government figure in a newsletter about archaeological computing, but the sentiments expressed are equally applicable to the work of those who aim to digitize archaeological information. A methodical, open process will virtually always produce the best results and will, as Mr. Rubin pointed out, be far more likely to get everyone involved working together toward a common goal. It is very hard to continue to resist a plan when you have been a full partner in the development of the plan, but very easy to sabotage plans when you have been or feel you have been left out of the decision-making process.

The importance of cooperation, hence process, grows in concert with the complexity of the job. More complicated sets of data, more inter-locked data types, and increasing reliance on digital data all conspire to make the resulting digital resources more complex and more important. That, in turn, makes the process by which data organization and storage are determined urgently important.

Archaeology is a discipline with a long tradition of rather autocratic excavators on the one hand and undisciplined collaborators who hardly speak to one another on the other. At both extremes the absence of an open process for debating matters of importance to all generally yielded predictable results, even at a time when data types could be treated as nearly independent fiefdoms. In today's archaeological world such an approach to archaeological data is no longer tolerated. Today's electronic world demands an open, cooperative process to organize, understand, and store the data as well as a similar process to detail the many complex interactions between/among the different kinds of data.

One serious impediment to a good planning process is the too-common assumption that those who will be planning and implementing the digital components of a project need not be brought into the project at the very beginning. What may seem to be the luxury of time is in fact a necessity when truly complex data types and interactions are to be expected; those responsible for digital records should be seen as critical in the very early stages of project planning. Then they will have the time required to produce good, well-designed, and well-implemented data-recording and retrieval systems. There will be enough unexpected problems as any project develops; they can be better handled if the base is strong.

Another common mistake is letting different individuals take charge of their own pieces of a larger digital puzzle as if all the pieces would fit together without effort. There may need to be specialists in specific digital technologies, but they must see themselves as part of a team aiming to provide good data in a holistic and comprehensive approach.

Finally, though not all would agree, I believe strongly that the project director must take an active part in the digital planning process. The digital aspects of the project are too important to be left to others, and doing so sends a clear message about the importance of the digital records. A good planning process will require the active involvement of the project director so that, at the end of the day, the needs of the project have been met. Only the project director is in a position to require that, and it is incumbent upon the director to be sure that result is achieved.

-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II

For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the Subject index.

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