Business Technology

Overcoming the document collaboration nightmare

6 min read

18 April 2013

The paperless revolution has yet to save us from information overload. Mark Warren explains why a more modern system will keep the document collaboration nightmare at bay.

Documents are at the very heart of every business. We tend to use them, however, in a highly ad-hoc way. Multiple versions of the same document in several places, with no way to understand how they relate to each other, gets confusing. Email, thumb drives and file-sharing in the cloud are great tools for encouraging uncontrolled proliferation of slightly different or duplicate copies of documents.

Why does this matter? A study of over 1,000 “knowledge workers” in the UK and US, conducted by Harris Interactive and commissioned by Perforce, found that 83 per cent of knowledge workers lose time each day to document version issues – effectively sifting through document “quicksand”. Surely the problem will be alleviated by using the various document sharing tools on the market? No. In fact, levels of frustration and ineffectiveness increase to 88 per cent or higher among knowledge workers who use document management or file sharing systems.

Confusion about document versions goes beyond personal frustration and demotivation. It has other serious consequences both internal and external to the business, such as missed business opportunities, damaged reputations and poor perception by colleagues and customers. Common issues include searching hard drives or email inboxes for the most up-to-date file; having to wait while someone else finishes working on a document; manually sorting out the amendments made by one or more contributors; and working on a document only to realise that it was the wrong or outdated version.

The paperless revolution has certainly not reduced the amount of information we must process. In fact, we are still in an information overload situation. Whether we like it or not, documents have become the social object that businesses revolve around; documents (in their widest definition) are where people collectively comment, brainstorm and plan. Thanks to social media, no one emails jokes anymore. Nevertheless, most knowledge workers manage documents, presentations and spreadsheets in the same way they did in the 1990s. Some 92 per cent of knowledge workers in the UK and USA conduct document review via email, according to the survey. Systems, therefore, need to be brought up to date.

How are document collaboration systems broken?

Systems to help with document collaboration have been around for many years. So, Perforce was surprised that the survey uncovered greater document-related issues for these systems’ users than for others, especially since they are often a significant investment. Clearly there are some fundamental things that are wrong. Talking to 

Perforce customers, we identified two key barriers that prevent these systems from being as effective as they could be:

1. Ease of use

Traditional document management systems are often large-scale solutions for large-scale problems, imposing strict processes and rigid workflows. Like using a hammer to crack a nut, people find them too over-the-top for their simple, everyday needs. So, employees tend to skip the process, send an email attachment, or use third party hosted file-sharing systems that may not meet enterprise requirements for security, compliance and reliability.

2. Individual control

How often have you kept a document in your private collection because you were unsure how it might fare once it left your possession? Knowledge workers have a natural tendency to “protect” their documents from potential harm by controlling the master copy.

The study found that 45 per cent of knowledge workers have heard the term “versioning” even though four out of five struggle to manage document changes. These same troubles plagued software developers before modern software version management. It’s time to plan for a more modern collaboration system, otherwise the nightmare will only get worse.

Companies need systems and processes that are user-friendly, but without compromising benefits such as speed and traceability.

Here are three recommendations when considering a document collaboration solution that will address these problems:

1. Use a tool that the employees want to use

Don’t let the tool slow them down or get in the way. Staff members are creative at finding ways around tools that impede their productivity.

2. Don’t rely on email as your corporate document store

Look for tools that manage versions of documents and allow you to understand what changed when and by whom.

3. Look for tools that encourage collaboration

People want to have conversations around the “water cooler” of their documents. So, don’t encourage the use of two or more tools when one should do the job.

Software developers solved these problems more than 30 years ago and while they are more “techie” than most of us, it proves that the challenge is not insurmountable. Now is the time for the rest of the business to learn those lessons. It’s time to launch a new era in collaboration. Because today, everyone is gathered around the document.

Mark Warren is the technical marketing director of Perforce Europe.