Softerware - techniques as technology

Last updated Sep 15, 2023 | Originally published Sep 8, 2023

As we develop our techniques and practices in knowledge innovation, we tend to find certain workflow patterns that we do over and over again. Knowledge workers are increasingly finding ways to augment these patterns with automations, macros, shortcuts, and other such tool add-ons. In the process of developing and refining these patterns with automation, we are writing “softerware”. Softerware is the layer of practices and protocols between us — users — and the tools we are using to achieve our goals.

For instance, my approach to literature review is basically a semi-systematic literature review (Okoli, 2015). When I have a research interest that I’ve not explored in detail before, I begin by searching the same several databases with the same search techniques, opening each potentially-interesting item in a new tab until I’ve reached some point of saturation (e.g., I am no longer finding interesting-looking items relevant to my interest at the time). Then, I’ll go through each tab, screening each article more critically. If an article passes my screen, I’ll then add it to my collection of literature on the subject by saving it (and its metadata) with Zotero, and finally I import the newly-collected items into Bookends.

There’s a lot of hand-waving there, but the details don’t really matter. What I’ve highlighted in the above description of my workflow are the elements of softerware: the events where what I do depends especially on how I do it. These events are important because, over time, that causal relationship runs in both directions. Over time, I change how I do something, and that influences what I do.

Another important feature of softerware is that it tends to be unpublished. These workflows are crafted in private, perhaps not explicitly or even intentionally by the worker. So the best softerware in the world may not be known to anyone but the person who made it!