“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.” Richard III (Duke of Gloucester) - Shakespeare
A former investment banker I know received back a signed contract from one of his largest parties where the agreement’s term had been changed from 3 years to one, with the hope that the subtle alteration would never be discovered. He immediately delved into all the other agreements with this party and found three more cases where someone either signed the wrong version or made a revision without informing others after signing it. He knew right away that finding these few discrepancies between what was negotiated and what was formally agreed to was obviously just the tip of the entire company’s enormous iceberg of stealthily modified files.
“How does this happen?” he complained.
His exasperation wasn’t at all lessened by a CTO’s perspective of the situation. “Better business processes are needed. Document comparison is just a commodity now.”
“Yeah, like fire extinguishers,” another replied sarcastically. Okay, I’ll admit it. I was the one who said that.
I maintain, now more than ever, that what we need is technology designed for collaborating rather than only drafting and sending. At its root, the biggest challenge with collaborating on documents today is less about missing the difference between versions as it is about why are there so many versions to begin with. Throughout history, we have approached content collaboration in fundamentally the same way. Scribes with their backbreaking labors made parchment copies and sent the fruits of their writer’s cramp far and wide by horseback in sealed scrolls. Much later, carbon copied pages were typed in quadruplicate and mailed in sealed envelopes.
Can you see the difference? Neither can I.
Soon after, typescripts were photocopied and faxed around. Now we draft files in our word processing apps and attach them to emails that ricochet about like bullets in a shooting gallery. Even when we post a document for editing to an extranet or DMS, it’s duplicated by downloading it into our word processors and all the resulting modified copies are then posted as additional versions. Rather than sending the content to the collaborators, we’ve merely sent the collaborators to the content…but with the same results.
This version proliferation continues unabated, and has even accelerated. Each document becomes its own vine of endlessly growing branches. Essentially, repositories just provide a secure assemblage of a single document’s manifold iterations, any one of which can be viewed and compared later. In fact, those iterations must be viewed and compared just to figure out which one is the master version.
Here’s a thought: As an alternative to collecting and hoarding the multitudinous versions of essentially the same document, why not have a single copy of the document and collect only its many revisions instead? Don’t gather tons of incrementally-different copies of the same file; gather the proposed changes to it.
Co-authors can still be “sent” to the content, but instead of endlessly replicating the entire document, only the requested edits to it are accumulated. The document owner can conceal or cordon off sections of the document which are not open to modification. Audit trails of each editor’s proposed changes could be quickly reviewed. An entire history of all changes by everyone to any particular paragraph could be seen with a click.
Best of all, the document never has to be checked out and locked from access by others, because any number of people can edit it at the same time. Remember, they’re not actually changing the content (even though it appears to them that they are); they’re simply adding to an independently-growing list of proposed edits. These edits can later be accepted or rejected into the single copy of the file while its owner views all collaborators’ modifications at the same time, all at once, rather than one-by-one.
This is collaboration as a technology, rather than as a process. Sound interesting? Actually, it’s revolutionary. It’s Litéra IDS. You should look into it.
Shakespeare’s Richard III starts his story about a different revolution observing that the wintertime of havoc and unhappiness is past. For mobile information worker professionals, here’s to the hope that “draft-and-send” processes substituting for truly interactive and controlled collaboration will soon be a thing of the past as well.
Sr. VP Corporate Development