Over the past few years, I’ve looked at the emerging market in document collaboration. Changes in attitude along with new technologies are changing how we create, edit, and publish documents. This is an important development because documents lie at the heart of so much business activity. As an analyst, this is obviously important to me; much of our business centers on documents such as briefs and market reports. As much as we like to think in terms of applications, businesses run on reports, brochures, web sites, and contracts, all of which are documents.
From a business perspective, document collaboration works the same no matter the technology base. Someone, or more than one person, creates a document, it is reviewed, edited, reviewed again, a consensus reached on its suitability for publication, and then it’s published. Afterwards, there may be sharing, comments, cataloging, and archiving as well. What’s interesting is how many different ways there seems to be to manage documents in a collaborative environment.
Looking at the technology landscape for document collaboration, there seems to be four models that have taken hold. They are:
- Cloud file sharing. This is the method favored by companies such as Box or Dropbox. You upload a file from a typical office application and then view, comment, and annotate from within the file repository.
- Social network sharing. This is similar to the cloud file method. Files are uploaded into a enterprise social network group and shared. The difference is that files are placed into a group conversation as opposed to having a conversation centered on the file. Functionally, they are otherwise the same.
- Enterprise content management. ECM products, including Microsoft SharePoint, are starting to look more like cloud file storage and enterprise social networks. They, however, support more formal workflows and have features that insure version integrity such as check-in/check-out.
- Application. By adding social and sharing features to applications themselves, collaborative document creation can be controlled from the point of creation. Google Apps, IBM Docs, and Microsoft Office365 are prime examples of this philosophy. Collaboration takes place entirely in the context of the document creation and editing tools.
There are advantages to each of these model. The ECM offers more control over the production process which is why it is especially important to creative organizations with high output requirements. The cloud file and social network methods favor a looser style of collaboration with conversations taking the place of more formal workflows. The later has the advantage of weaving document collaboration into the context of other types of collaborative work that doesn’t rely on documents or files. The application method is the more likely to be the one that is favored by the actual creators of documents since it keeps the work inside the applications they use most. A key advantage to the application method is the ability to place conversations and comments right next to the actual piece of content that is the topic of the discussion. That makes editing much easier.
Some companies have decided to let the user choose. IBM and Microsoft are example of companies whose products support all of these document collaboration styles. Microsoft, for example, has a cloud file sharing and collaboration product (OneDrive), social network (Yammer), ECM product (SharePoint), and, of course, collaboration-enabled applications as part of the Office365 suite.
Document collaboration is one of the most important aspects of business life. For some professionals, it is the central activity. Each type of document collaboration method has its merits but the future will favor the companies that provide which knowledge workers with a choices that match job functions and circumstances.