Opinion: Time to say goodbye to ‘track changes’

man frustrated desk paper document_sml

Will Microsoft abandon the document-version paper chase?  

Does this sound like a familiar scenario? “When you create a document as an attachment you can send it off once and people say, ‘Oh that’s great’, but no-one bothers to update it, and then someone edits it and someone else edits at the same time. And you say, who’s got the latest version? Did you make any changes? Are you going to accept my changes?”

The quote is from a former frustrated Microsoft Office user – I’ll tell you who a little later.

The twin inventions of the word processor and email drove a boost in productivity over businesses still relying on a typewriter and the postal service.

The word processor-email combination worked well enough as long as the process was between two people. As soon as three or more were involved it turned into a wrangling contest as the document creator tried to wrestle back to earth a copy of the document which included all accepted, harmonised opinions of the group.

But the truth is that even between two people the solution was far from perfect. The document creator had to wait for the respondent to make changes during which time the creator may have made further changes, and both then fell into the “track changes” vortex.

Cloud computing is ushering in a new era of productivity that far surpasses the old. That former Microsoft Office user quoted above was Jason Ashton, CEO of wireless telco Big Air, whose 50-person company recently made the move to Google Apps.

He spoke about the benefits of moving to a system where there is one document – period. The crucial difference with the cloud is that the document creator doesn’t send the document to colleagues. Instead he invites the colleagues to edit the one document.

The consequences of this are profound. It means you never have more than one version of the document. It means that every collaborator can view the document at the same time, see the changes of others immediately and can add their changes simultaneously. And it means you always know where the latest document is. This last benefit was one that meant a lot to Ashton.

“I can’t tell you how enlightening that was, that I don’t have to ask for the latest version. If there’s something I’m unhappy about, like the format of the monthly board report, I can edit it myself knowing full well that it’s locked in rather than passing the message on hoping it gets to the right person with the final version and it gets included,” Ashton says.

Ashton outlines another three benefits that have improved how his company operates. You can read about them here.

Where is Microsoft in all this? With a foot in either camp, unfortunately. Microsoft’s cloud productivity suite Office 365 does allow co-editing though not for all programs or in all situations. An Office 365 user with a later version of Microsoft Office can invite others to co-edit a document open on his or her desktop, although they can’t edit the same paragraph.

In some ways the Microsoft co-editing experience is superior to Google’s because users can start an instant messaging conversation, a phone call or a video call with collaborators using the Lync communication tool. That’s very neat.

But Office 365 still relies on SharePoint Online for sharing documents which means that sharing settings are held within SharePoint rather than the documents themselves. SharePoint also promotes version control with a “check in, check out” system for document management that’s akin to borrowing books from a library.

The argument in favour of versions is that this is the way corporations handle documents and they want to continue this way. I don’t believe that’s true. If someone wants to lock a document down they can turn it into a PDF or create a separately labelled copy.

I think versioning was a necessary evil brought about by the first era of digital productivity. It shouldn’t be part of the second era.


Can you think of reasons for keeping versions? Add your thoughts in the comments below.

About Sholto Macpherson

Sholto Macpherson is a business technology journalist, consultant and analyst specialising in cloud accounting software.

Sholto is the author of the Macpherson Report, which examines the key technology trends facing accountants in Australia.

He lives and works in Sydney, Australia.

One Response to “Opinion: Time to say goodbye to ‘track changes’”
  1. John B says:

    Maybe I am showing my age, but I very much prefer version control over multiple semi-edited versions of a document.

    Surely, every document has an “Owner” and a primary location, whether on a shared server or in a “cloud” somewhere. The Owner and filing system will track changes each step along the way. The alternative suggested here will result in tears, unless the work environment develops a set of tools to fill the gaps.

    Further, the suggestion that PDF’s somehow solve the problem is laughable. PDF’s are good for final issue, nothing less. They are terrible when used to distribute half-finished work, because they restrict the receiver to use of comments, instead of the tools that tracked changes offer. I recently had the “pleasure” of working with a technical consultant who issued their draft report as a single PDF of more than 100MB, including drawings and A3 spreadsheets. Ultimately, it became obvious that this consultant was using updated versions of the same documents, in various versions, as work progressed. The resulting multimillion dollar stuff-up was in no way made better by the use of PDF or shared “corporate only” uncirculated versions.

    What was needed was a proper, traditional, formal document management system complete with version control. There’s nothing difficult about this.

    In essence, this writer has set out to solve a non-problem, or at least, a problem of version control that was created by the user, not by the software.

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