Blogger: Larry Cannell
In a recent post Stephen O’Grady takes an interesting look at the current paradigm of “documents.” Stephen makes these points:
- Google Docs and blog posts are not documents.
- Documents are not collaborative (“A document, for me, has become a snapshot of the real, living asset, rather than an asset in and of itself”)
- And concludes with:
“The term document, in my view, is a legacy term, and as such, it brings with it preconceived notions of what a document is, should be, and can be. My concern, then, is that these preconceived notions end up predetermining the perceptions of what the assets are capable of.”
- We need to find another word to describe documents authored online since “document” implies a computer file.
I agree with most everything Stephen says. Except, in my opinion he shouldn’t be complaining about documents. He should be complaining about documents stored in files.The source of my disagreement with Stephen is his confusion between document and file. In his blog post, whenever Stephen refers to a document he describes a file. Documents are not necessarily files and files are not necessarily documents.
The analog world counterparts to computer documents and files are considered very different things. A file cabinet holds file folders which hold pieces of papers. Many, of which, are most certainly documents. Have we become so accustomed to documents stored as files that we use the terms interchangeably? I hope not. Instead of finding a new word to describe documents I think we need to stop abusing the word “document.”
At Burton Group’s Catalyst Conference this year I discussed how we need to change our definition of “document.” The practice of storing computer-based documents within computer files has been around since…well…as long as we’ve had computer files (which is as long as we’ve had computers). Microsoft’s choice to store a Word document within a computer file wasn’t a difficult one. A computer file made the most sense because no one could think of another place to store them.
Is a Wikipedia page or a Google Doc a document? I argue, yes, it absolutely is a document. However, that may be difficult to comprehend because no one could ever imagine creating Wikipedia using current desktop word processors.
How would a new paradigm, let’s call it “Document as a web page", behave different than our current “Document as a file” paradigm?
- Documents-as-web-pages are collaborative. Wikis and online documents have version control and most have some form of access control. In contrast, documents-as-files are usually black-holes of information. Rarely do people effectively collaborate when documents are stored in files.
- Documents-as-web-pages are easier to access. Only a browser is required, not a heavy client application (ok, a little diversion for the moment…documents-as-web-pages use the web as a platform, an important component of web 2.0…documents-as-files, on the other hand, uses the web as a transport).
- Documents-as-web-pages focus more on presentation within a browser rather than a printed page.
- Documents-as-web-pages can scale into something much larger than a single document. Look how large Wikipedia has become (10M+ pages…err…documents).
In the documents-as-web-pages paradigm Wikipedia (or it’s enterprise equivalent, let’s call them corporate-pedias) is a document management system. However, this is not your typical document management system. These documents remain relevant and have the opportunity to improve over time. Today, most document management systems are simply dumping grounds for documents before they are deleted to stay compliant with a policy or mandate.
To me, the current documents-as-files paradigm is holding up enterprises from realizing the potential of their “documents.” It keeps information siloed into thousands (even millions) of black holes (called files) on desktop computers.
Do we need a new term to describe a document-as-web-page? Maybe so. But, until I am convinced otherwise, I’ll stay with “document.” Although, I might be convinced to call them “online documents” for awhile. This would be similar to how today’s cameras were once referred to as “digital cameras.” This term was used to distinguish cameras capturing images on digital media from cameras capturing images on rolled sheets of light-sensitive plastic called “film.”
By the way, you may also be interested in another blog post I wrote about this called “I Hate Files.”