Monday, August 3, 2009

Whither the office?

Working in a nonprofit volunteer organization has challenges, and this aticle at Ars Technica hits the nail on the head:

Go into any office today and you'll find people using Word to write documents. Some people still print them out and file them in big metal cabinets to be lost forever, but again this is simply an old habit, like a phantom itch on a severed limb. Instead of printing them, most people will email them to their boss or another coworker, who is then expected to download the email attachment and edit the document, then return it to them in the same manner. At some point the document is considered "finished", at which point it gets dropped off on a network share somewhere and is then summarily forgotten.

People keep doing this, but it is an astoundingly awful way to work. Here are just a few of the problems:

  • People sometimes forget to attach the document to their email.
  • The document can be too large—especially long documents with lots of images—and can clog up the email server.
  • Nobody knows what edits were made and by whom. Sure, you can turn "Track Changes" on, but as it transforms your document into a horrible illegible mess, most people very quickly turn it off again.
  • Nobody has any idea which is the most recent version of the document. This leads to amusing email flame wars where people insist that you adopt version control for your file names, which nobody ever does because they are too busy arguing about what the syntax should be. Even if you do manage to get version control, you are still never sure if you have the most recent version.
  • People save the document in some directory on their hard drive and then forget where it is. The usual solution to this is to email the author again and ask them to resend it.
  • People miss the email (usually because there are far too many emails in a day) and claim to have never received the document in the first place.

Even if you somehow manage to survive all these pitfalls and your document reaches the Holy Land of $some_random_network_share, your troubles are just beginning. Now nobody knows where your document is, so they have to pester you to tell them.

Changing habits is the worst part. Everyone wants everything in a specific folder, but being able to search is typically much more efficient. The difficulty is that you have to have the keywords. There's one very funny story where we were trying to find the electronic file for a program book, and literally searched everywhere we could think of. Naturally, the file was called "PB."