The Wheel, That Radical New Concept

I think I may be getting the hang of that "work" thing again, although there is a lot to be said for keeping track of everything I'm supposed to be doing, GTD or no GTD. FreeMind and unison have been holding it together for me during the past couple of days, since it's pretty much impossible to think at the office right now. So I do assessments and prioritization in the evening (when I'm at my Mac) and spend the day churning through the e-mail and e-paperwork barrage on my XP laptop.

(Yeah, I know: "Think Different" - it's such a cliché, but it's true.)

So, Is This Computer Thing Really Any Good?

If anyone were to ask me today whether or not computers are productivity enhancers, I would be hard pressed to come up with a positive spin on things. Or rather, with a positive opinion on how we're actually using them, especially where collaborative work is concerned - shunting drafts via e-mail and relying on Office's "track changes" feature may seem like magic compared to the old days, but it is amazingly inefficient, for several reasons:

  • You will almost never get the exact same document you reviewed a couple of weeks back, since someone performed major changes to the structure or layout, or changed the filename, any of which:
    • may break with Word's "track changes" feature completely.
    • results in an overly bloated file with several (ultimately unreadable) change marks.
    • force you to re-read everything from scratch slowly, stepping over the change marks one by one.
    • waste your time figuring out what happened.
    • make you howl in dismay and simply switch off track changes
    • all of the above
  • E-mail-based review cycles work very poorly across organizations. Whereas you might be able to set up a simple workflow if you circulate a document in a Windows-only, Exchange-centric environment (it is actually simpler in Notes, but that's another story), it will never work reliably via e-mail alone, so you end up publishing the document in a central location and:
    • Getting several different versions as people edit the document and re-post it alongside the original (causing utter confusion)
    • Designating an editor in charge of receiving all comments and incorporating them in the document, therefore effectively nullifying that person's availability for other tasks and causing a single point of failure/bottleneck.

Not to mention delays, difficulties in reaching the document repository, file format issues, formatting, fonts, etc. - you name it.

Web-Centric? That Piece Of Junk?

So, naturally, my thoughts strayed to Wiki-like tools. I won't go into details into the available web-centric enterprise tools, but after having tried most of them during the past ten years or so (ever since the Netscape Collabra days), I have to say that they all mostly suck at collaborative document editing, because they are all based in the (broken) assumption that documents have to work as files (Office or otherwise), and go out of their way to help you manage umpteen rows of icons and filenames - which is something that was supposed to be the job of a desktop environment, not the browser's.

Don't get me wrong, though - the current emphasis on web-based enterprise tools is A Good Thing. But the features they deliver (forums, file repositories with versioning, ad-hoc databases, issue tracking, scheduling, etc.) are grossly underused, because (and here's my main point) they do little to enhance the actual creative process - they are almost all passive, storage-oriented tools that may do a good job of capturing your organization's know-how and processes, but do little (if anything) to enhance them.

No matter how many alarms, triggers and scripting you can bolt on to them, they don't help you create things - they merely let you drop files in and shunt bits of information around as comments, trouble tickets, or database fields, all the while performing a rather poor imitation of a shared file system.

The Non-Wiki-Looking Enterprise Wiki

In case you still haven't grasped what I'm driving at, here's my current train of thought: an "enterprise" Wiki with per-section (concurrent) document editing and a decent interface (i.e., one that looked and felt like an Office application) would make the whole document review process a lot easier.

Something that felt like Word, SubEthaEdit and DokuWiki rolled together, could be split into several workspaces and let me keep track of relevant changes via RSS feeds. Yes, a decent distributed, web-based, Wiki-like editor. You can even bolt that onto your current "web-based enterprise workspace" behemoth, if you want to.

Of course, the "what, you mean anyone can edit this?" pointy-haired decision-makers would have to be sold on it (preferably by bolting on somewhat better security and change tracking - believe me, judging by some of the tools I've used, it doesn't take much), and someone would really have to find a decent way to deal with illustrations (file upload doesn't cut it, sorry), but, compared to the amount of redundancy that is cluttering up my inbox, it would be a godsend.

Editing Heaven

Imagine - you just open an URL, click on the section you're supposed to review, edit it (a bit more graphically than today's Wikis), save it, and go away. The thing keeps track of section numbers, revisions (of course), etc.

(By the way, someone really clever will one day make a Wiki with Word-like DHTML change markers, if they haven't done so already.)

And the editor simply has to call up the whole document, review it in one piece (resting assured that it's the most up-to-date version), lock the page as final, and render a nicely formatted PDF from it (I assume an enterprise tool will have a nice selection of templates for final output, but you can just paste the rich text into Word and be done with it).

The Mind-Boggling Feeling

Somehow, I have a feeling that Google would be the right company to get it done - rolling it into a nice web-based service package and wiping out Yahoo! Groups, Microsoft SharePoint and Lotus Workplace in the process. After they decide to go for the business segment, of course.

If anyone can deliver ground-breaking, truly well thought-out and useful web-based applications consistently, it's them.

And I would give up a significant portion of my anatomy to help build such a beast - or at least be one of the first to use it.