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The Perils of Document Collaboration: "Is This the Latest Version?"

September 09, 2015

The Perils of Document Collaboration:

If I told you that your team enjoyed near consensus on an issue (98% in agreement) — you might think that's a great sign of team unity. Full steam ahead. But what if I told you that consensus was the percentage of employees who say they find document collaboration difficult?

So found a recent study by Soonr that looked at the reality of document collaboration in today's workplace. The same study also found another near consensus (94%) of workers who said they experienced individual challenges viewing, downloading, and editing documents.

How can this be?

You thought that Dropbox, or another one of the many file-sharing-and-syncing services, was eliminating such aggravations. The cloud-based file managements services promise to provide collaborative access and version control by syncing the most recent copy of a document on everyone's desktop.

More than likely though, you've ended up with a morass of files and don’t know which version is the most current one or with whom files have been shared. (This is commonly known as “the Dropbox problem.”)

Your experience is not unique. A separate study, the Harris Interactive Knowledge Worker Survey, revealed that 83% of knowledge workers report their productivity is negatively affected due to daily document collaboration challenges.

There's no question that today's cloud-based file management services add value over the file server systems of old: multi-device access, commenting on files, update synchronization, merging multi-user edits.

Unfortunately, we're finding that these file share-and-sync applications get caught in the same Collaboration Paradox that afflicts messaging and project management software. That is, the more our team members use collaboration tools, the more new challenges arise impeding our efforts to translate collaboration into productivity and good decision-making.

Two Steps Forward — One Step Back

The fundamental problem with Dropbox, or any other cloud file management solution, is that project-related discussions — typically embedded in email threads — are separated from content, or are attached to specific files and lost.

We've made it easier to get more hands on a file and track changes. Yet the why behind those changes remains cut off from the file content itself. As does the when, since most users create new file versions by creating a new physical file. Not that many offline content editing/creation tools don’t support discussion and feedback. They do, but they require creating a new file for each updated version, which loses feedback history. Perhaps there are naming conventions making it clear to the user group which one is the active version. But how often have you found multiple versions of the same file labeled "Final"?

These important conversations and meaning fall into the murky abyss, detaching context from our files. Here are our current conversation options for the voluminous files that widen the abyss:

  • Email threads may be with the document attached, but perhaps not. And is it the right version of the document? Are all the right people on the email thread?

  • Real-time messaging, which may or may not permit attaching the document being discussed. How are these conversations stored?

  • Company social platforms, which present conversations separated from a file.

  • Comment threads attached to specific file in a file share-and-sync application. But this conversation is attached to one discrete file. What happens to that conversation when a new discrete file, the newer version, is created? It's stuck on the old, obsolete file.

We can't avoid creating files. From the dawn of history we've needed to lock down our thoughts for future reference or use. Creating detailed blueprints, a PowerPoint presentation, or a complicated analysis spreadsheet isn't going to end — it’s impossible to avoid files. So your collaboration solution must be capable of attaching the commentary to the latest versions of documents and making them readily accessible.

The Next Added Value is Your Institutional Knowledge

As collaboration technology continues to move forward, the file management solutions will improve their current functionality to provide easier, cleaner merging of multi-user changes and stronger version control, perhaps more akin to version control systems used to manage software development.

Even so, the real next step in the technology collaboration continuum is capturing the added value of your institutional knowledge that's sitting in all the conversations surrounding your files. Files don't exist for their own ends. That spreadsheet or presentation only has value as part of a larger goal and context, whether it's a specific project or running a smooth operation.

Keeping that context with the file is where the productive collaboration happens. Otherwise, needing to work with a file is just the first step down another rabbit hole of isolated conversations and seemingly random file modifications.