by C.G. Lynch

Think Outside the Filing Cabinet

Aug 14, 20093 mins
Enterprise Architecture

It's time for enterprises to move beyond Microsoft Windows folders and SharePoint workspaces, and into Twitter-like streams.

As we enjoyed the rise of the personal computer, e-mail and corporate networks, you might have deemed filing cabinets a relic of the 20th century. 

You’d be wrong. 

The truth is, thanks to Microsoft and a couple other old-guard technology vendors, filing cabinets remain alive and well — and I’m not referring to a metal box that sits under your desks or between cubicles. (Though I’m willing to bet that plenty of U.S. businesses still rely on more of those ancient storage devices than would care to admit.)

What I mean are those digital filing cabinets that live on your shared Windows drives or in a SharePoint workspace that, together with e-mail, somehow passes for “enterprise collaboration” in 90 percent (anecdotal guess) of companies.

The unimaginative, document-centric architecture under which all computers live has stemmed from Microsoft’s inability to think outside the filing cabinet. On Microsoft Windows, for instance, we still use folders. Inside those folders, we put files, or more folders, with more files contained within them. Worse, just like a regular paper-filled cabinet, if someone checks out a file to alter it, no one else can access it until their colleague brings it back. 

Enterprise IT has been complacent and compliant in reinforcing this structure for years, but that’s finally starting to change, like it or not. The emergence of Twitter and Facebook, and the Enterprise 2.0 vendors who have mimicked those social technologies to be used internally at businesses, have given companies the choice to move away from this poorly structured form of information sharing.

They imagine a world where you sign into a Twitter-like home page. In the activity stream, your colleagues (privately) tweet that they have edited an important document that you have been jointly crafting. At the end of that message is a link to the document, where you can review the changes and make ones yourself — again, in real time.

Sure, folder structures still exist in the background, but you can bypass them altogether by searching for a document and going straight to it, rather than travelling down these ridiculous file paths (and several clicks), such as: clynch/c-drive/folder a/folderb/folderb2/filex.

This world I describe actually exists, and vendors such as Socialtext, Telligent and Newsgator (to name a few) have begun building it. Microsoft, for its part, sees the changing tide as well, which validates the movement. It’s rumored that Microsoft might have activity streams of some kind in SharePoint 2010, but it remains to be seen what they will look like or how far behind they’ll be, given Redmond’s dinosaur development cycles.

Microsoft will make one very important contribution soon, however: The release of a fully Online Office. This will make it easier for us to leave the filing cabinet because we can message each other with links rather than e-mail attachments or file paths.

I’m currently researching the companies that have been early adopters with activity streams, whether it’s going the route of an alternative vendor or building something on top of SharePoint. If you would like to share your story — to talk about a truly alternative way — please drop me a line. It’s a story I’d be happy to tell.