Files stink (the computer kind of file that is). I mean, I really hate having to deal with all the computer files in my life. At the office I have files on my computer, stuck in various web spaces and shared drives, buried in email folders, taking up space on thumb drives and god knows where else. At home it’s almost as bad (in some ways worse) now that everyone in my family has a computer (that I try to keep backed up) not to mention all of the interactions we have with schools, non-profits, and my wife's business.
It seems like we have all sorts of these containers called "file" to hold information but can never find anything and the time it takes to organize files is never worth it. Even worse, I feel like I have to shield myself from the files people virtually throw at me through email. I am losing the battle against the onslaught of computer files and I am one of the people my family and friends come to for advice about this stuff. Imagine what the computer novices or phobes go through.
I don't even want files. What I want is the information stored in a file. I want documents… you know, reports, analysis, recommendations, etc. Files are overhead. Computers are supposed to take care of overhead.
So I have been thinking about files and documents lately and I have come to the conclusion that our reliance on the computer file as the primary structure for storing our digital "stuff" is hurting us in ways we cannot see. This is holding us back from realizing truly breakthrough capabilities.
The computer file is older than I am, which according to my kids, is a REALLY long time. The Wikipedia entry for computer file suggests the concept started in 1961 with MIT's CTSS project. At this point I think many of us simply take files for granted. That is, those of us who are experienced enough to deal with files.
My kids know about files, enough to do their homework. But I bet they don’t know where iTunes keeps their music (and why should they care?). My Mom certainly does not understand files. She knows Yahoo! Mail well enough. But files? No way. I suspect there are many users of the Internet who do not have a clue about what files are or how to manage them.
So if files are so bad why do we put up with them? It's probably because their use is so ingrained in us that we cannot imagine an alternative. And to be honest, until recently, neither could I. But then along comes some great alternatives. A good example of this is online office suites like Google Docs and Zoho. Another example, which I won’t get into in this blog post, is SharePoint lists.
One of the few times Google Docs requires you to deal with files is when you upload a Word document. Documents exist entirely within the online office suite. How office suites evolve to manage documents will play a huge role in determining their success. After all, we don’t want to transfer the mess we have with files to the online office suites.
Having version control built into the office suite is a great start. How many of us get lost after resorting to appending "v2" to file names stored on our computer or have to guess which document is the latest among the similarly labeled files sitting on a shared drive? Office suites using a folder/file interface are doing so to offer something familiar but I think they need to evolve to something much more.
A recent conversation I had with a colleague is a good example of the value of online documents. He was asked by friends at a non-profit about a problem that occurred when a critical person left the organization and important documents (files) were lost. The few people they had on staff barely could handle email and they had no idea how to handle their organization's documents.
The toughest technical challenge these organizations face is not having the skills necessary to compose a document. But rather it is not having the skills necessary to manage and share documents. In my opinion, storing files in a web workspace is marginally better than a shared drive (although it can be significantly better if best practices are used). There is just too much separation between the browser using the web workspace and the file’s application (word processor, spreadsheet application, etc.).
The juggling that has to take place between the two windows is something many people never seem to master (“ok, I read the document in this window and then I will flip over to this window to write a comment …”). In addition, the workspace and the file applications often compete with each other by offering similar features. For example, both SharePoint document libraries and Microsoft Word have version control.
I believe one of the reasons why it is easier for a group to manage and share documents using online office suites (rather than with files) is because they use the web rather than tolerate it. This is an important concept that was noted by Tim O’Reilly in his original Web 2.0 blog post. He referred to it as using the “web as platform” and is an important design pattern for Enterprise 2.0 too.
I'll get into this topic in more detail in upcoming blog posts. In addition, over the next few months much my blogging here will be exploring the concept of Enterprise 2.0 along with examples that help explain it.
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