Office applications: Still your father's Oldsmobile

For a world that's totally Internet-connected and collaboration-savvy, it's a bit of a shock to realize how much we're locked into traditional applications and use patterns.

It's 2010. The Internet is pervasive and mobile. Business processes, supply chains, and financial markets are globally connected and electronically executed. There are no flying cars, but in many other ways, the future has arrived. Yet when we look at the tools and processes organizations use to create and update documents--the lifeblood for business processes--they're straight out of the 1990s playbook. The world's changed, but the office applications most in use today--our word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation programs--basically have the same priorities and follow the same strategies they did two decades ago.

Sure, today's office apps have sleeker user interfaces and more integrated functionality. I no longer know how I'd live without those little squiggly red underlines saying I'd misspelled a word, and suggesting how to spell it right. It's certainly a lot easier to create documents with embedded tables, illustrations, and animations, for example. And some of the features in the labs, such as Adobe's Content-Aware Fill, border on "indistinguishable from magic." But the way office apps are designed and commonly used? Still has 1990 written all over it.

Consider collaboration. Twenty years ago, today's "office apps" were called "personal productivity apps." We still use them in largely that way--even though documents used in a business context are almost never personal or individual in nature. Business documents are almost invariably team efforts, produced to accomplish organizational outcomes. Yet we create and manage documents individually. Once drafted, we "throw them over the wall" for others to extend or review. We e-mail the latest copies to the next person in the review chain, or put them on some shared file server or document repository. This is a recipe for the proliferation of document revisions. Often, even basic process information--what revision we're dealing with, who "owns" this revision, or who's worked on it before us--isn't really clear. Someone else starts editing or reviewing what you've written; at the same time, you think of several other things you'd like to add, or changes that need to be made. Presto! Conflicting versions. Add in a handful of authors, contributors, editors, and approvers, and the problem's exponentially worse. Features like "track changes" and "compare documents" help, but they lead to complicated documents and difficult reviews, especially if the team has more than a few members. It's even worse if the collaboration required isn't within a small cohesive work group, but cross-company.

The underlying problem is that office apps were designed to assist individuals, but are now being used for collaborative team work. The apps focus too narrowly on individuals creating content, and too little on the larger process of teams evolving content. Partially as a result, and partially by habit, we as users take a traditional sequential approach to what is at heart a parallel process.

The same "we haven't made much progress!" complaint can be lodged against automation. Document evolution is a frighteningly unautomated affair. "But! But! But...!" I hear you sputter. "How can you say that? We have publishing tools by the ton! Word, Excel, Photoshop, FrameMaker, Dreamweaver--and all the rest!"

Sure--you have a long list of tools to help you create individual pieces or kinds of content. They have feature upon feature for completing individual steps. But twenty-some-odd years of product evolution notwithstanding, there's not much automation for macro processes, such as attractively formatting documents (the way you want them formatted), for ensuring that documents contain everything they should or must (based on your company or project requirements), or for easily publishing documents to a variety of formats and destinations (especially if they need to be republished whenever they're been updated).

Numerous steps in every document's life cycle are simply considered "white space"--something the people involved need to handle manually. Office apps may provide some aides--templates and stylesheets for formatting, for example, or export tools for PDF, HTML, and other output formats. But it remains users' responsibility to apply them in an exacting and consistent way for every document handled--exactly the sort of thing people aren't good at, and which is tedious and error-prone.

Finally, a note about the scope of the problem. When I say "we" have these problems, I mean: almost everyone. I've been involved in a number of projects that were utterly dependent on, or even primarily about, creating documents. These span procurement, financial, legal, product development, operational, marketing, and publishing projects. I've worked with government agencies, law firms, large enterprises, small and medium businesses, start-ups, investors, nonprofits, and individuals across multiple continents. I've worked with organizations that have essentially unlimited resources. And yet, I have seen almost no exceptions to these large-scale gaps.

I've seen critical processes in make-or-break projects come down to frantic last-minute "fix the document!" tweedling--often because critical revisions couldn't be made in parallel, in the earlier and more leisurely project phases, and because all the critical last-minute checks and exports had to be done by hand. And then redone, when the tedium and error-proneness led to errors. I've felt the blood-pressure spike as we scrambled in the minutes before a drop-dead deadline to make a time-stamped submission or the last FedEx drop. It's amazing, but it happens regularly and to everyone. If our tools and processes regularly lead us to that unhappy place, then the tools and processes are simply broken or insufficient. They should be--nay, in a high velocity world, they must be--fixed and improved.

The good news is there is hope. While still in their early days, a new crop of tools like Google Docs, Google Wave, and Zoho, for example, make real-time collaboration a core feature, rather than an afterthought. Network-optimized versions of Microsoft Office and Oracle's "CloudOffice" seem likely to learn the same tricks before too long. Document formats, once opaque and proprietary, are evolving to use XML and other open formats, enabling automation. Finally, enterprises are increasingly focused on improving their own collaboration and business processes. All of these things give us hope; none can come too soon. Dad loved his Olds--but we deserve a sleeker ride.

 

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