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Evolution of document collaboration

True Collaboration is not about file sharing

Imagine yourself in a couple of years, advising your kids, friends or colleagues when they are about to select their preferred word processor for collaboration purposes. You remember back in the old days when we used word processors like Word Perfect, Word and Google Docs . We didn’t realize it then – the real problem that hindered us from solving the challenge of collaboration.

Going back in history, back to 1867, Mr Christopher Sholes invented the typewriter – and he used a piece of paper as a container for the information. Over 100 years later, computer based word processors started to emerge – using a file as the container for the information. Somewhere in history after computers were linked together in networks we started to think we could use our computers to collaborate. This was brilliant. Instead of sending physical documents to each other, we could just send the files – and if you didn’t have the most recent version of the mainstream word processor or were using a mac, it was your problem. Back here, the evolution stopped.

We wasted a lot of time and money. We tried to send files as e-mail attachments back and forth, checking in and out of Document Management Systems, collaborative portals and cloud drives such as Sharepoint, Team sites and Dropbox. And not to mention all the time we used to spend on formatting, numbering, cross references and graphics. Massive resources were spent each year to risk assess the workflow for these files, trying to enforce security and integrity, but the files were so easy to duplicate and bring out of the company’s security context.

We tried to secure the environments, but mobile came along – and BYOD – we thought the solution was to have the document-files open in a virtual container, but the security and collaboration problem remained unsolved. We fooled ourselves to think that the problem was solved and we generated a lot of information, stored it on file servers, but the value of the information dropped as soon as the file was uploaded. The file was lost in thousands and millions of files on the server, different versions and similar names. We tried to make logical structures on our file servers, to tag the files so we could search for them. If you could retrieve some information, you weren’t sure if it was the latest and greatest.

Today we tend to smile when we think of this – and everybody knows why. Because, most of us are familiar with this problem, we have all tried to collaborate using a file based word processor. As a document controller or a project manager, it is so annoying to have to merge the different files, having to change the formatting while not breaking the numbering, and what was the latest version? Did the SME’s review this and did my manager approve all of it or just the draft from last week? What about the prices, are they updated according to latest development in the marked? Did I remember to address all the comments? Back then, we couldn’t even rearrange the sections without a lot of hassle.

Reusing information from other documents while keeping track of usage, such as copying or linking, was unheard of. Modern companies now take this for granted. It is completely obvious to use a document production system that is database driven – not based on files. Secure and efficient collaboration is important to us. Confidentiality, integrity, quality, deadlines and brand consistency are important aspects of document creation.

Such small, yet important, things such as workflow on section level, audit logs and versioning for any change or exposure to data and a dashboard displaying the progress of the document production are only a few of the additional advantages included in the biggest invention since the emerging word processor back in the 70’s. And, to support those who still use legacy systems, you can export the documents to files such as PDF, ODT or Word format – but wait until the document is ready to be published – you don’t want to collaborate on those files.

Who could have imagined that the root of the problem to enable true collaboration was one of the most basic building blocks of the computer – the file.

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