Documents are the new Email

Business is transitioning away from documents as the ‘system of record’ for work. Even if we aren’t aware of it yet.

With new lightweight takes on ‘documents’ — like Dropbox Paper, Slack posts, Google Docs, and Quip — I’ve been thinking a lot about the changing role of documents as an element of work technologies.

Note that the title of this post — Documents are the new Email — is provocative, but guardedly. There is more email today than ever, and it’s likely to be around for decades to come, in some form or another. However, email is an unloved medium, and one that people aspire to spend less time involved with. Moreover, new communications media are often developed explicitly with the intent of minimizing email use. Therefore, I think there are deep parallels in the perceptions and usage patterns of email and documents.

One aspect — or consequence — of mobile is the increasing use of synchronous communications, specifically chat.based communications, and to a lesser extent video-based communications, like Snapchat. It’s not so much that we’re mobile on mobile devices, but that we are discontinuous: our work is likely to be broken up into many short time frames, and we are less likely, therefore, to read or write long format on mobile devices. ‘TL;DR’ is one result of mobile.

This is a foundational shift, and is leading to a corresponding decrease in asynchronous communications as a proportion of total communications. Note that overall communication is increasing, so many workers will receive even more email, or be passed links to more documents, but the proportions are moving from the asynch toward the synchronous end of the scale.

Docs, not Documents

There is a shift — showing up in small and mid.sized businesses first, but soon everywhere — away from creating, sharing, and managing ‘heavy documents’, like Word documents. Alternatives — notably, Google Docs and Dropbox Paper, but also Slack posts, Evernote, and others — provide a smaller set of functions, but operate in the context of those other platforms’ architectural and social models.

Today, business is transitioning away from documents as the ‘system of record’ for work. Even if we aren’t aware of it yet.

The system of record is increasingly found instead in social channels, like chat histories, or is determined in real-time on a case-by-case, department-by-department, project-by-project basis. This is also influenced by increased agility and autonomy in faster-moving and innovative companies, where how work is done, how services are provided, and how products are made are changing very rapidly.

Increasingly, the marginalia surrounding a doc — comments made internal to the doc, messages and tasks related to a doc, and so on — are as important to the system of record as the doc contents are. The context holds as much or more information as the ‘content’.

In the past 5 years, products like Dropbox, Box, OneDrive, and Google Drive have exploded. We really need to think of file sync-and-share apps as fixing a flaw in our operating systems, notably Mac OS X and Windows. They are still configured as if there is no Internet, and as if we don’t have multiple computing devices. We are using these applications not really as a file sharing tool, but as an a distributed file system, with capabilities like syncing, file sharing, and marginalia (comments, activity streams, etc.) providing what the OS’s should do natively, but don’t.

These file sync.and.share solutions form the bedrock on which a new computing paradigm has emerged: the distributed core model. As a result, individuals, workgroups, and companies can operate with a cloud-based distributed file system with files being synced to individual devices, being backed up in the cloud, and supporting nearly frictionless file sharing.

As chat becomes the bloodstream and nervous system of the business, where everything important appears first, relatively rapidly work chat will become the system of record for business. Decisions will be recorded there, agreements negotiated, and most critical information will be intentional placed there.

This will start with the sorts of interactions that are in many companies now conducted in email, or, when considered more formal, in relatively lightweight document types, like memos. But as time progresses, more consequential information that today finds its way into documents may remain in — or be moved to — a chat context, and simply be found by link or search whenever needed, or served up on demand by intelligent ‘bots.

For a great many organizations, task management forms the core of the company’s coordination. Partly that also includes a formalization of business processes, cost accounting of project and transactional work activities, and the communications around those business functions. As a result, these sorts of information will increasingly be managed externally to documents, in applications or platforms that natively support tasks and their sharing.

Email has been denigrated for decades, called the place ‘where knowledge goes to die’, and as the medium that most people would like to spend less time using.

As I said at the outset, that doesn’t mean we don’t use email on a daily basis, or that the absolute number of emails is falling. However, there is a persistent aggravation around the use of email, perhaps baked into the implicit demands that the form factor — or social use pattern— of email puts on us.

The characteristics that make email unpopular are largely shared by documents.

Behind the rise of work chat is the decline of email, but the fall of documents is close behind.

Since email shows up in an inbox in unpredictable, time-stamped order (as a default) we feel the need to process email at the pace that it arrives. Otherwise, our inboxes start to expand, and then we can’t read, make sense of, and respond to the messages in a timely fashion.

Also, each email message has the possibility of critically important information buried within it: a request for help, a demand for a response to a question, an invitation to a conference call later today. At present, people have to personally surface these coordinative signals by reading the emails. In fact, that may be the most critical role email plays: notifications of the need to coordinate.

One of the many reasons that people may dislike email is that it is not particularly well-designed to transmit coordinative information, like requests, invites, and demands. It is better suited — if that can be said — for carrying general unstructured information, much like we find in certain documents, like memos, reports, and the like. In effect, email is just a sort of document that is transmitted through email protocols natively.

And, the same annoyances that are linked to email can be found in the use of documents. They are possibly unstructured, idiosyncratic, and therefore have to be a/ idiosyncratically deconstructed, and b/ read in their entirety to be certain that nothing is missed.

And, in a way like email, new documents ‘arrive’ — in our shared folders, intranets, and as email attachments — all the time. Like email, we are forced to read new documents if we want to remain knowledgeable about the subjects that the documents relate to.

While the number of documents may be rising on an absolute basis, I believe the proportion of people’s time is shifting toward more immediate forms of communication — chat, texting, and the like — and less time is being spent in creating, reading, and updating documents. This — again — follows the pattern of email.

A great deal of the transition toward more modern and bounded communication may be as a result of leveraging social context — team membership baked into chat, task management, and the shared file system model of the distributed core model in file sync.and.share tools — and relying on social context and structure to make the work of information processing easier.

If this hypothesis is true we will continue to see the proportion of email and documents to fall relative to other more socially.bounded alternatives.

Behind the rise of work chat is the decline of email, but the fall of documents is close behind.

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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