Economics of Information noted a recent survey showing business users by and large ignoring Microsoft’s structured file sharing service, SharePoint. They ask why people still use email to collaborate, despite its nominal inefficiencies. Here are my thoughts based on my experiences in the finance industry:
- Disclosure matters. Having a simple, understandable-by-a-judge document that says A sent X to B on such and such date is critical on a number of levels. It can prove whether a contract was respected or violated or whether or not a department or employee did it’s job correctly or incorrectly. And yes, intra-company conflicts are no less bloody or consequential even if lawyers are not involved. SharePoint nominally accomplishes this, but with more ambiguity. Say a file changes, how do people know what changed and whether it’s pertinent to them? How do you set policy so that you even know whether everyone knows that a file changed? Unless you are very, very careful in how you set policy you lose knowledge about disclosure. Most managers don’t have time to figure that out and won’t take the risk in adopting something could reduce their control of process.
- Collaboration in the creation of office documents is over-rated. Most technical documents have a two step life. An analyst level person creates the document and a manager reviews and makes changes as necessary, and it’s done. When I have seen manuscript type documents where you need multiple managers reviewing/editing a single document, it’s almost always a formal sign-off process where you need documentation that everyone reviewed and approved. I could imagine SharePoint doing that but again you’d need a lot of policy work to automate the documentation, this time cutting across departments.
- Another note on collaboration- I’ve had SOX auditors tell me they don’t like seeing office documents involved in material financial calculations at all. I can’t imagine them being comfortable with something that introduces even a shred of additional ambiguity. SOX compliance is another reason managers are probably reluctant to change process.
All of this is to say that you need a lot of policy work to control notification and documentation of such. That can be done but requires an investment of time by managers, and the payoff compared to using email doesn’t cut it.
If I were running a startup I’d demand people use a structured file system with lots of opportunity for markup information (what is this, what does it pertain to etc.) and I’d expect businesses that use it to have a considerable advantage down the road (how much time do you spend trying to untangle the work of predecessors?) I would not expect established businesses, especially big ones with lots of history, to lead the charge.