IBM's Sutor asks how you share documents. Wrong question, right time?

Summary:In his blog, IBM's open source/open standards veep Bob Sutor asks "How do you share documents?"  The post briefly delves into the history of how paper and eventually digital documents are created and passed around, recommends using PDF if document requires no further editing by recipients and ends with: A word processing document in some sense represents the raw material of a document on its way to final production.

In his blog, IBM's open source/open standards veep Bob Sutor asks "How do you share documents?"  The post briefly delves into the history of how paper and eventually digital documents are created and passed around, recommends using PDF if document requires no further editing by recipients and ends with:

A word processing document in some sense represents the raw material of a document on its way to final production. Once it gets there or if you just want me to read the content, send me something that I can read on multiple platforms with no trouble. Of course, in my particular case, if it must be a word processing document, make it ODF.

Sutor has been IBM's chief OpenDocument Format (ODF) evangelist, especially since it entered the public spotlight last year.  Setting aside the format debate for a second, Now is the time to let the Web force you into rethinking how you share knowledge. I couldn't help but wonder, given Sutor's post, if "documents" by itself is the wrong word in the question How do you share documents?  Sutor accurately zeros in on one of the problems with document sharing while hinting at another.  Do you really need the heft of a word processing document format to share the document or can you go with something lighter weight?  When you do share a document in a heavy word processing format, are you better off when such sharing can happen regardless of the application software in use by the recipient? (the insinuation is that you're likely to find broader support for ODF than you are for alternatives)

Both are fair questions.  But,  the word "document" stacks the deck in favor of what some might consider to be Draconian approaches -- documents, email, and emailing documents -- to sharing and collaboration in the first place. In fairness to Sutor, there are plenty of use cases that require those approaches.  But even when considering those, perhaps we're better off thinking in terms of sharing knowledge and information before thinking of documents.  By freeing ourselves from document-oriented thinking, we clear the way towards developing more efficient collaborative infrastructures (as opposed to tying ourselves to the older less efficient ones).  So, before we encode that knowledge into some sort of document and debate what the format it should be stored in before we mail it around, why don't we think about the most efficient way to share that knowledge and work from there?

Between blogs, wikis, static Web pages, and RSS, now is the time to let the Web force you into rethinking how you share knowledge  today.  When he was president at Userland (he's at Apptran now), Scott Young told me:

When we go in and we look at these situations and what we see is pretty much complete reliance on e-mail as the default publishing mechanism and the default knowledge repository within an organization, and that's a little scary because e-mail is not searchable, it's not accessible to anyone, it's completely distributed and most of the time if somebody leaves the company, they just simply just wipe it all out, even though it's everything that person ever did and everyone that they were in contact with and all that information is simply lost....E-mail is going to be appropriate for certain kinds of conversations and it's going to be inappropriate for others and one of those is the publishing kind of capability. So if you're writing your department report, post it to your department Web log and make sure people can see it by subscribing to it. And then it takes the burden off of you to have to ensure that everybody in the company sees it.

Blogs make for an excellent knowledge sharing medium when your in Bob's PDF mode: the mode where the knowledge needs to be published but isn't editable by the group.  That knowledge is Web-based  (and who doesn't have Web access?) which makes it infinitely more searchable (and integrateble into other knowledge by way of hypelinking) by the organization. Through RSS,  recipients can be notified of its availability as well as any changes. Comments (a form of collaboration) can easily be filed by "recipients."  And if something that's inherently more distributable (write once, circulate to many) like PDF is required, RSS supports the notion of enclosures which, to Sutor's bandwidth consumption point, are far more bandwidth efficient than email attachments since distribution across a network isn't a foregone conclusion (with blogs, the "recipient" has to want the file before crosses the wire). 

For all intents and purposes, wikis are blogs that have exchanged the diary-like posting format for the ability to let multiple users edit the same piece of content (aka: collaborating on knowledge).  In other words, instead of sending a editable document around, host it as a Web page that anybody with access to the wiki can edit.  Wikis also support RSS (notify me when this wiki page changes).  Revisions can be tracked and restored.  Content can be edited with user-friendly WYSIWYG tools. Traditional content management systems, look out!

Does this work for knowledge of all types the way a word processing document might? Maybe not. But things are improving.  For example, there's certain types of knowledge that only a spreadsheet can capture. Last week, we had to pass spreadsheets around to share them. Reconciling changes by Mary, John and Sue were a bitch.  A few days ago, with ODBC strapped to Excel spreadsheets (IT department required), we were able to publish them as uneditable HTML tables (even SQL queries worked!).  Today we have Dan Bricklin's WikiCalc: Web-based spreadsheets that, in true wiki fashion, are editable by multiple users.  Right there on the Web page!  Relatively speaking, it's a new technology.  WikiCalc is in alpha (beta is coming soon, according to Bricklin).   But its newness shouldn't be confused with the benefits.  Are wikis getting better at accomodating richer content?  As evidenced by solution providers like Jotspot and more recently, WetPaint, yes.  Can wikis or and the Web stretch their tentacles over the air into mobile devices like BlackBerries like email?  As evidenced by SocialText's Miki, yes.  In fact, Web access to such mobile device is far more pervasive than the ability to open speicfically formatted documents that arrive as email attachements (let alone edit them).

OK. So, at the end of the day, whether it's a blog or a wiki, the knowledge is still technically encoded into a file which most people equate with a digital document.  Actually, in many cases -- for example Wordpress and MediaWiki -- "collections" of knowledge (blog entres, wiki pages) ares stored  in PHP-retrievable records in a MySQL database.  But we see those collections on Web pages that, for some, conjure up the notion of  documents.  But to most, document means an Office document (Word, Excel, etc.) or a PDF document and starting with the sort of thinking that you have one of those documents to share is the wrong way to go about it.  Think about freeing your knowledge.  Then worry about the format after your thinking leads you to regular document land (which continues to be appropriate in very many use cases).  Not only that, as I've written before, if knowledge encoded in wikis and blogs absolutely has to be forcibly removed from its resting place, there's no reason a file format like ODF can't be put to use then.

Topics: Software

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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