PleaseTech blog

We aim to provide useful, pertinent and sometimes fun insights into the world of document collaboration and the workings of a technology company

The nightmare of 'tracked changes'

Posted by PleaseTech Guest on 27. June 2013 15:09

Our guest blogger is...


Andrew Barnes, Independent Marketing Consultant

 

I'm not prone to nightmares, and normally I sleep quite well.  But towards the end of last year I genuinely did wake in the middle of the night in a slight panic.

Over the years I've worked in a variety of different roles with many types of software companies.  From rapidly growing UK companies with great products to global organizations with products in need of refresh, I've worked in some sort of marketing position.

Throughout that time one thing has been more or less constant: the need to create, share and review documents.  Even now, as an independent consultant, I've always thought of myself as pretty adept at juggling documents to ultimately come out with a polished datasheet, press release, whitepaper or proposal as required.  But for some reason this time it was different.

I had been co-ordinating the creation and approval of a new whitepaper for a company that will remain nameless.  This involved taking input from a few different departments and working with a couple of agencies in different time zones.

There was nothing really out of the ordinary.  A draft had been created.  Like many companies there wasn't much of a process to follow.  They relied on the distribution of the whitepaper by email and using tracked changes in Microsoft Word to evolve it.

I won't bore you with the details of the rainbow of colors I had to resolve in the document as the emails came back and people edited edits.  I set about resolving the amendments and accepting comments where appropriate.  By the time I'd finished I felt pretty relieved.

So why did I wake with a start?  For some reason I suddenly realized that I'd inadvertently approved for external release a document that was still being modified by some fairly senior people.  And the situation needed to be corrected pretty quickly.

At the 11th hour an executive had decided the document needed a particular twist and had started a new email thread distributing the original version.  I'd been told this in passing, but it had slipped my mind and as a result the consolidation of some pretty critical amendments hadn't happened.  All my hard work had been messed up.

So first thing the following morning I still had the same deadline to meet, and I had to work out to incorporate amendments to amendments, quickly research responses to new comments and resubmit for further approval across time-zones.

I didn't have the luxury of an audit trail to work out what had gone on.  The lack of process had let me down.  So I painstakingly had to go about comparing documents, tracking down emails to see who had done what and chasing one person who was adamant they needed to be involved, but couldn't be tracked down (and yes the pun was intended).

I got there in the end. The whitepaper was published and well received by the audience.  So apart from some shredded nerves and extra work, no real harm was done.

Since then I've started doing some work for PleaseTech Ltd and have had my eyes opened to the value of a structured, controlled approach to document review.

I think it's time for me to stop juggling documents and drowning in the sea of tracked changes.  If only I can persuade my clients of the right way to control the document review process...

Will online word processors ever become mainstream?

Posted by Tim Robinson on 17. June 2013 12:54

CTO at PleaseTech


You have to hand it to Google. In the early days at least, they achieved success by unleashing a product on the market that was so far ahead, not just of current offerings, but of people’s expectations, that they changed the game. First this happened with search, then with webmail and then again with online maps. In each case they went into an already-busy marketplace and blew it away purely with the superiority of their product.

Of course you can argue that Google and Microsoft are now head-to-head on all 3 applications (and on online word processing which we’ll come to in a second), but there’s no doubt that Google defined the genre and MS have been playing catch-up. And I’m not naïve enough to think that these offering (either MS or Google) were developed from scratch in house, but it’s the Google machine that has rolled them out and made them ubiquitous. The point I’m making is simply that if anyone can make a web application work, Google can.

Not long after maps and Gmail, they turned their attention to Google Docs and the fields of online word processing and spreadsheets. They’ve certainly made their mark here but in terms of overall adoption to this type of application, it’s still relatively a minority activity. The obvious corollary to my previous conclusion is: If Google can’t make it work, maybe nobody can.

I think there are several reasons for this: firstly the fact that Google Docs by a massive margin falls short of the usability and functionality of Microsoft Word (even the 10% that most users use) and, judging by the lack of improvements in the last couple of years, Google isn’t that fussed about catching up. Even the idea of writing a word processor inside a web browser using JavaScript is a really difficult (some might say crazy) thing to attempt. Secondly the “always connected world” isn’t nearly as ubiquitous as those living in Southern California would like us to believe (I regularly find myself in locations without even cell phone access, and I don’t exactly live in the middle of nowhere); and thirdly there’s the fact that if you have a document saved somewhere you control (whether that’s on your hard drive or EDMS), you can at least have a strategy for security, backup and Disaster Recovery whereas with the online world you’ll never really know where your data is or who has access.

But lastly I think there’s a more philosophical angle: writing a document is a very personal activity, even when that document, as a piece of intellectual property, is owned by your employer. Of course there is a need for collaboration – that’s what PleaseTech is all about – but for the creative business of writing, I want to work on my own, and I don’t want people messing with my content until I’ve decided I’ve finished with it and am ready to hand it over.

We use both Google Docs and spreadsheets in PleaseTech but only where the need for real-time multi-user access overrides all other considerations, and in 95% of cases (maybe 99 – I never counted) that doesn’t apply. So, for all those reasons above, I’m writing this blog post where I write all my documents: on my PC in Microsoft Word, and while I’m actually posting it, if the network connection drops or gets timed out, I can just paste it in again.

Disclaimer: other non-JavaScript Word processors are available. I am most definitely not a Microsoft shill – I hate the ribbon, I hate Windows 8, and I hate SharePoint, I’m not specifically attached to MS Word other than familiarity, and apart from WYSIWYG, I don’t really think the state-of-the-art in word processing has advanced that much since Word Perfect 5.1

 

Our new product hits the streets!

Posted by David Cornwell on 23. August 2012 16:34

Founder/CEO of PleaseTech Ltd - collaborative document review and co-authoring for the enterprise.


Long time no blog! I find it hard to believe that it's been four months since my last sensible blog post. The time has just flown past. My excuse is that we have been focusing on getting our new product, PleaseAuthor, out of the door. The effort taken to complete, document and deliver it has been all consuming. 

PleaseAuthor is targeted at what I consider to be the ‘light weight’ structured authoring market - in other words those who need to implement structured authoring but who don't want to make the investment in, or require, the more complex solutions currently available. Structured authoring is not new but what is new is our approach - by basing it entirely around Microsoft Word we keep it within a familiar user environment and make it extremely simple to learn and use and, most importantly, set-up. 

As always, with a new product, the aim of the first version is to provide a catalyst for debate and to initiate discussion with customers. Of course, this first version must work. But the real value is for potential customers to actually see, feel and play with it. By using customer feedback to develop enhancements to PleaseAuthor, I have no doubt that it will prove to be a very valuable tool for clients. As with any iterative process, each journey starts with a single step and we are actively working with clients to define the next step in PleaseAuthor’s journey.

One of the toughest aspects of extending a single product solution into a suite of products is to get the look and feel right so that the products co-exist seamlessly. There are, of course, two ways to approach this – the cheap way and the expensive way. The latter consists of employing user interface designers and the former involves asking everyone in the company for ideas. Needless to say we chose the former and, I think, it has worked rather well – as those of you who are lucky enough to use our products will discover. 

Moving away from product development, what has worked less well in my opinion is some of the social media marketing we have been concentrating on. LinkedIn has been useful and provides value in driving traffic to our website, Twitter helps develop conversations where there is a defined hash tag (such as for a conference) but otherwise has yet to prove its worth and as for Facebook, not a success. If we were a ‘B2C’ business then I’d see Facebook in a different light, but as a ‘B2B’ I can’t see its value. Anyhow, we have a comprehensive review of the whole social media campaign in early September...I’ll let you know how it goes.

We are now at the stage of deciding ‘what next’ for PleaseReview, aside from a delegation module currently in development and to be delivered at the end of September.

In examining the document collaboration market, the big vendors seem fixated on the Google Docs ‘co-authoring’ approach. This is where Microsoft has focused its efforts with SharePoint 2010/Office 2010 and, from reading initial reviews of upcoming releases, interactive co-authoring continues to be the focus. I believe that whilst this is interesting, it’s not really what people want as it causes as many issues as it solves. True, people can work on the same document - but there is no control over who can do what to where and users can easily overwrite others' changes. As we say it requires ‘well trained, rational and courteous’ users.

People may think they want simultaneous, interactive co-authoring, but, given that not all users are rational and courteous, what they really want is control, reporting and a complete solution. Thus we have engineered more and more control into PleaseReview. For example, our ‘ReviewZones’ allow individuals to be locked out of part of the document or see sections of the document as ‘read only’. Authors want people to be able to ‘mark-up the document but not mess it up’. PleaseReview provides complete control over ‘who can do what to where’ and thus prevents over-enthusiastic reviewers messing up the document.  

Clearly there are user cases for both approaches but we are planting our flag firmly in the ‘control’ territory. Going forward our tag line will be ‘controlled document collaboration’ – the emphasis being, of course, on the word ‘controlled’.

As evidence that our approach is extremely valid, we are finding that as people start experimenting with the interactive co-authoring provided by SharePoint and Office, they realise that control is a good thing and that PleaseReview is the only game in town. We add that layer of control and reporting to SharePoint which enhances its capabilities and delivers a more complete solution. 

On the subject of SharePoint we finally released our SharePoint whitepaper reporting on the research we undertook at the SharePoint USA and European conferences last year. Two key findings really stood out for me. Firstly, 90% of respondents experienced issues with their document review process but nonetheless were ‘satisfied’ . This, to my mind is about education. People simply aren’t aware that a better alternative exists and make do with what they have. Secondly, a surprisingly large number of participants had a very simplistic view of what constitutes collaboration. For example, over 25% of respondents agreed that sequential access to a document was collaboration, whilst 32% were neutral on the subject. Oh dear, a fair amount of education to do!

Finally, as you may have noticed, the Olympics have just finished here in the UK with the Paralympics still to come. We commissioned a series of cartoons for the Games which are published on ourcartoon website. I hope you enjoy them.

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