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Why File Sync & Share Won't Solve Collaboration Problems

January 07, 2016

Why File Sync & Share Won't Solve Collaboration Problems

Dinosaurs had 165 million good years. Cloud-based file sync and share (FSS) services won't even get one good decade.

FSS services were introduced as a quantum leap in workplace collaboration — people could jointly share, edit, and access documents from anywhere, at anytime! Now cheap storage and the ubiquity of sync technology has made FSS a commodity. If FSS providers want to survive, they'll have to become much more than what they are today. And they know it – witness Dropbox's beta of its Paper product, a collaborative note-taking tool.

The unfortunate truth for FSS services isn't that storage commoditization is making them obsolete. Their problem is that they were never very good at genuine collaboration in the first place.

File-centric Thinking and Working is Going Extinct

When was the last time you saw a manila file folder, other than the little icon in your FSS navigation screen? Exactly.

The entire concept of a "file" is based on old workplace notions of files as the central blocks and output of work — a report, a memo, a spreadsheet. The original file structure (and its charming little file icon) of computer-based file management interfaces was designed that way because the technology was built around way we worked — then.

Today we work much differently. The technology needs to adapt to new workflows and habits. This is especially true for Millennials and Generation M who've been surrounded by technology their entire lives. They expect the technology to accommodate their behaviors, instead of having to adjust their behavior to how the technology wants them to act.

Documents and spreadsheets are only some of the file formats relevant today. Audio, video, and presentation files are becoming increasingly important. In a broader way, information and communication have been liberated from the file format. We access information packaged in a variety of formats that exist outside a file structure, including emails, digital dashboards, and other presentation mediums like Evernote, Trello, and Slack. We have new expectations on how to categorize, tag, and search for information across multiple platforms.

We're not working like Mad Men anymore either. The workplace we experience now has people and information distributed all over the world. No bar carts in corner offices (there may be a pool table somewhere though). People regularly engage with their work and teams via mobile, even if their company has a physical office. Whether it's reading on the train or jumping on an impromptu brainstorming session wherever team members happen to be at the time.

The more distributed, and yet more collaborative, approach we take to working today, requires heavy amounts of real time communication and information-sharing. Software that puts a file as its central organizing unit is missing the changes happening in the workplace and to our work habits.

We Don't Talk About Files, We Talk About Problems and Projects

Even when we used files, we weren't talking about them. For every clichéd boss yelling "Get me the Jones file! " on some old television show – even then what the boss really wanted was the information and context held in that file. We talk about projects, problems, and solutions. Files are only a midstream layer that can either facilitate or obstruct work actually getting done.

Instead, what we actually want to do is address information. Analyze it, update it, synthesize it for use in unexpected ways. We want to manage our projects for efficiency — who's doing what? Was it done? Who needs assistance? Who is waiting on someone else's deliverable before they can get their work done? We want to make quick, effective, smart decisions. What decisions need to be made to move forward? Who should decide? Has a decision been made? Has it been communicated?

These are the critical substance of our work – not files.  They all require meaningful collaboration allowing a group to achieve more than the sum of its individual team members.

Syncing edits and managing version control on files is useful. Don't get me wrong — it's necessary. But it's an insufficient condition for collaboration because all the action and communication is happening outside the files.

By the end of 2016, no company will self-identify as an FSS service. Some FSS companies will go out of business. Some will go down stack and focus on providing enterprise storage solutions.

Others will consolidate with other tools and become the FSS services provided as part of larger collaborative software suite. For these collaboration tools, FSS will be the cheap break room coffee of the virtual workplace. You have to have it, but it's not really what's powering productivity or innovation.