harbar.net component based software & platform hygiene

The days of documents are *not* numbered

Print | posted on Sunday, March 08, 2009 12:04 AM

SharePoint Joel has some good points over on his recent post regarding the waste of space that most documents are. Certainly I can agree with this – I’ve seen and produced enough of these things over the years – a few unfortunate souls have even read the ones with my name on the front! I guess apologies are in order to you all at this point :)

However, such a generalization is extremely dangerous albeit it a good controversy for debate. (Darn, now I’m humming that guitar lick).

The bottom line here is it depends upon the content. All this social computing stuff is amazingly interesting, especially the way things morph from their intended original purpose into something different no one expected. However, there will always be the next new thing. Twitter for example – well you know I’ve seen that before quite some years ago. It was called IRC.

Regardless of the tools used to create and consume content, there is one constant. CONTENT IS KING. This has always been the case, from the invention of the printing press to the development of Surface. Nothing matters if the content is crap.

There’s a ton of things for which the waste of space document is entirely inappropriate. Take technical design specifications – is that the best way to capture the intent of those who take requirements (if they are lucky to have them) and produce a spec? Probably not, but it is a *good* way. In the ideal world there are a groups of artifacts that would make up the Spec. This is where simple social computing tools can help, wikis being the most obvious example. Blogs however are crap. I’m sorry but one of the biggest complaints I get from customers and students is that there is way too much fragmentation, it’s the old chestnut, “where can i find good info on technology XXX?”.

But here’s the thing – big ass spec docs are only as good as the ability of the authors to articulate their intent. And if the author is employed to produce specs or are otherwise thinking themselves an “architect” they should have these skills, if they don’t they shouldn’t be writing the document. I doubt the designers of skyscrapers, airports, bridges or commercial jet airliners, or those at NASA would agree with the statement that the “documents day’s are numbered” [sic].

Writing is an art and a science. Surely the key goal here is to improve the content, not signal the pre-mature death of a “format” which has driven innovation for centuries across the globe? I’m an admitted grumpy old git who bemoans the shocking state of high school English (in the UK). It’s *our* language and we can’t even teach our own children how to use it. Never mind actually use a pen! The waste of space document is a symptom of many things, not least of which is the ability of the writers. Makes sense no? Guess what, one of the best ways to improve as a writer is to read. The more you read, the more you learn (even when reading rubbish).

Another thing to fundamentally understand here is that complicated topics or simple ones with many side aspects to consider cannot be effectively distilled into bullet points or 140 character tweets. The written word remains one of the most effective forms of communication and there’s no time soon that will change. That’s why movie scripts are done that way as one of literally millions of examples. Take my pretty lame Central Admin High Availability article I posted recently. Other than teaching in a classroom situation, how could I have better articulated that topic? Sure a wiki is interesting here, but that article is effectively a document. Indeed many people have asked me for it as a PDF which they could of course generate themselves albeit in breach of copyright laws.

So yes Social Computing is at the forefront of providing the ability to better produce and consume artifacts. The XML file formats introduced with Office 2007 offer a startling glimpse of opportunity afforded by extensibility – viewing a “file” on surface, for example. However where are the tools for aggregating all the assets, making them easy to navigate, search, retrieve, consume and be protected?

We’re not really talking about Social Computing here at all, we’re talking about Content Management – stick Enterprise in front if your marketing guys thinks that’s important, but take my word for it – it isn’t. And Content Management is all about, wait for it, Content. Without it, the management is worthless.

Think about all the processes and so on that are based on their key artifacts being documents. Think about the likelihood your project manager or dev lead would accept tweets for a spec :) There are culture change issues of magnitude in the mix.

And how about one of the single biggest barriers to Social Computing becoming truly effective – multi-lingual. 100% of my twitter followers (all six of them :)) must speak English. It consistently amazes me that many people simply ignore the fact that are quite a lot of humans that don’t. Translating documents (written word) is fraught with risk, but it can be done. Translating tweets (SMS), I think you see what I’m getting at. :)

It is a hugely interesting area and the opportunity for innovation is incredible, but the documents days are not numbered. Far from it. But i do wish that waste of space TDS docs would die :)