What is the Future for Document Creation?

David Cornwell, CEO, PleaseTech Ltd
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David Cornwell, CEO, PleaseTech Ltd

As the CEO of a technology company I must constantly consider the future. Naturally, a major consideration is whether a disruptive new technology is coming along which could make our products obsolete. For example, at a consumer level, Uber is severely damaging, if not destroying the traditional taxi business. As an Uber user myself, I can see why.

I believe that only the paranoid survive and I’m forever scanning the horizon for the missile which is aimed squarely at our technology - that of document review. What is this disruptive new technology (or, as Nicholas Taleb would put it, black swan event) which will hurt us? 

Before I go any further let me define “document review” as the term means different things in different industries. For us, document review is the generic term for the process by which peers, specialists (i.e. subject matter experts) or other interested parties comment upon and suggest changes to the content of a document prior to its finalization, approval and dissemination. Specifically, it is the review element of the document creation process. It can involve a single person (unusual), a small team of, say, five to twenty people (common) or a widespread team of 50+ reviewers (unusual). There may be several re-work and review iterations before the document is finalized.

  The corollary of perceived slow movement is that when change does come, if you're not part of it, you're out 

Whether the document is an internal policy, procedure or specification or an external facing regulatory submission or proposal, the basic creation process is the same: create, review, finalize, approve, and finally, disseminate. I simply don’t see this process changing in the foreseeable future. No black swans there. 

Now the good news for us is that PleaseTech operates in the B2B market space where disruptive new technology takes time to infiltrate. Large corporates are considered slow moving in this era of ever accelerating innovation. However, that doesn’t mean we can rest easy. The corollary of perceived slow movement is that when change does come, if you're not part of it, you're out!

One area of disruption which does impact us is the ongoing Office suite apps battle between Google and Microsoft. The Microsoft Office Suite has, for the last 20 years, been the dominant application for the creation of documents, spreadsheets and presentations in the business world. Our competitive advantage is based around our deep understanding of Microsoft Word and, to a lesser extent, the remainder of the Office Suite. So is the Office Suite under attack? The answer is yes - of course. The real question is, how successfully?

A couple of years ago it seemed that Google was making decent inroads into Microsoft’s market share with commentators making a comparison with the relative decline of use of Internet Explorer compared with Chrome. Indeed, in early 2015, Google announced its plan to “steal” 80 percent of Microsoft’s market share. However, with the undoubted success of Office 365, Microsoft is fighting back and, last October in this very journal, Mary Branscombe penned an article entitled “Why companies are switching from Google Apps to Office 365”. 

It goes beyond this. In general, users are resistant to change and those entering the workforce over the last few years have been used to Word from an early age. However, there is some evidence that Google is winning the battle in new smaller companies with younger workforces. But it will take a very long time for this advantage to filter through, meaning the Microsoft Office Suite will be the primary document creation mechanism for the foreseeable future.

There is, of course, the whole cloud versus on premise debate. Whilst the cloud is a fine invention and our cloud business is growing rapidly, not everyone wants their valuable intellectual property in the cloud. 

A case in point would be a regulatory drug submission which contains clinical trials' data. Or a high value proposal for a defense contract. Is a company really prepared to entrust these valuable documents to a generic cloud? Obviously not, so we see on premise being equally as important as cloud and, that of course, is where Microsoft wins again with its Office Suite. Its commercial competitors are all 100 percent cloud based.

What about the future of documents themselves? With individuals entering the workforce now being classified as “digital natives”, does the whole concept of a “document” go away? Is this our black swan? 

I’m of an age where I recall typing pools. Professional Engineers (as I was attempting to be as I entered the workforce back then) didn’t type their own documents. They were submitted to a typing pool, where they were created, printed and returned to you for review. A red pen was then used and the cycle continued. However, the introduction of PCs and word processors was a disruptive technology and the typing pool vanished. Yet, despite the disruption, the concept of paper document format lived on electronically with Adobe Acrobat. The delivery mechanism may have changed but the concept of a document is still very much alive. 

Do digital natives think the same way? The research suggests not. They think in social media terms and moving them beyond this is one of the challenges educators have to deal with. They need to replace the informal language with more formal language that they can use in their essays, dissertations and other such submissions.

Can we see contracts being agreed in informal language? I think not. One of the first lessons in business is, understanding that the way something is worded can form the basis of a legal contract or instruction. The language used is all important. If it’s a specialist subject area there is “accepted language” pertaining to that specialism. The nuances of wording whatever the target dissemination mechanism (i.e. formal document, web page, email or, even, tweet) are all important. 

So it seems to be that the document creation process of create, review, finalize, approve, disseminate isn’t going to change anytime soon – certainly not in my business career and probably not in my children’s business career. 

It’s hard to see something replacing Word even with initiatives such as the Open Document Format (ODF) supported by the UK Government. However, the whole point of a Black Swan event is that it comes out of left field and is extremely difficult to predict. So who knows what the future holds?

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