If you and your team, in 2013, are still sharing Microsoft Office (Word, Excel) documents via internal corporate e-mail, I’ve got news for you. You’re doing it wrong.
“Live documents” are documents that are actively being updated and collaborated on by multiple people. Collaborating on these documents by e-mail is a process that you should avoid. It is a process that can eat away at your team’s productivity precious minutes at a time, and can severely impede your team’s work-flow and ability to stay synchronised.
I’ve been involved with projects where this method of collaboration was adopted. Whenever I recognize this to be the case, I would immediately share my concerns, and try to suggest better ways of getting the team organized. There are always better ways to do it.
One of the biggest problems with e-mail document sharing is that there is no tracking or accountability. There is no way to easily know what version of the document you have in your possession. Is it the latest? Perhaps it’s new enough? Ever had to find an email with a document attachment, and ended up trying to craft clever little search terms to search your inbox? Even if you find the document you were looking for, there is no way for you to know whether it is the last official revision, unless a system is implemented to allow “official” versions of the document to reside in a central location.
If there is a point-person in charge of managing this kind of set-up (for example, a simple system implemented with shared folders), and the maintainer ends up leaving the company for any reason (vacation, short-term disability, lay-off), then you still end up in a bad situation. Without someone actively maintaining the structure of the document store, things will end up getting messy very quickly. Users will begin storing documents in arbitrary locations (whatever feels right at the time), and before you know it, you will have to start yet another document archive clean-up project.
Version control is ubiquitous, and it is here to stay. Any company (in any industry, not just IT) not seriously considering a process for document revision control should at least make it a point to have the discussion at least once a year. You may find that your current document handling processes are actually a significant time waster, and that implementing a document management system could save you a lot of time (or money) over the long run.
There are many document sharing and collaboration technologies available today. Some of the more popular include Sharepoint (if you are a Microsoft shop) or Documentum. There are also many open source (free) packages, such as Drupal, Joomla, and Liferay. There are even projects like Etherpad that make collaboration just plain fun. You can also roll-your-own (if you are so inclined) by developing a custom system on top of foundational version control software such as Git or Bazaar, as I personally have done in the past.
Do your research when considering a content management system. Some important considerations you might want to make include:
- Is it easy to set up?
- Is it easy to use? Does it blend well with our team’s work-flow?
- Is it safe? Is it easy to make backups?
- What kind of security mechanisms does it have built-in?
- Is it easy to get our data out of the system (strong import/export functionality), in the event that we decide to move to another system in the future?
- Is it cross-platform, or does it tie us to a specific platform (operating system)?
- Is the cost worth the investment for a company our size?
The important thing here is to start thinking about it. Be open to evaluating multiple products before you decide on a system that blends best with your organization’s work-flow. Software is about solving problems, which includes eliminating routine and time-consuming tasks. If your company is not continually looking at new ways to improve efficiencies via clever (and practical) software implementations, then it will eventually be left in the dust as more efficient start-ups and entrepreneurs bring their shiny new productivity platforms to the game.