17 Aug 2004 prozac   » (Journeyer)

The Broken Office Paradigm

In this post I describe the current paradigm of office productivity software and why it is broken.

Background

I have been the IT Manager/Network Administrator for a small business for two years. The business, a Mergers & Acquisitions brokerage, like many small businesses, generates many documents. These documents are printed, mailed, faxed, e-mailed and posted to the Web.

The type of documents vary from standard letters and faxes to advertisements, brochures, product/service announcements, etc. We have a company logo and a corporate "style" which we use when designing documents. These documents are collectively called our "literature".

We use Personal Computers and standard "office productivity software" such as word processor, spreadsheet, graphics manipulation, and an HTML editor to create these documents. Very typical small office stuff.

I have come to the conclusion that the office document paradigm is seriously broken for it causes excessive waste of time and resources.

For complete disclosure, we use Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, Outlook, Frontpage) and Adobe Acrobat and Photoshop. At times we use other similar Windows software such as from Lotus and Macromedia. We have a small computer network (a dozen) all running versions of Microsoft Windows, along with a few networked printers, a copier and a fax machine.

All of this is what I figure the majority of small businesses use. And it is a complete waste of my time.

And I cringe at the thought of millions of businesses all wasting their time--and paper--dealing with the problems that result from all this.

The problems are many. I will take on the many issues one at a time. Most are technical but some are human issues.

First, let me dispel the notion of a "paper-less office" ever being achieved under this paradigm. In fact, we generate (and waste) more paper than ever I would have imagined. Part of this excess of paper generation is that the non-technically inclined are just so used to paper (as far as I can tell) that they can not deal with information unless they can hold it in their hands. Many in the office distribute inter-office memos by writing them in a word processor and printing them and putting them on people's desks and "in-boxes". The first thing some people do with received e-mails is to print them out!

(One of the worst examples of this is when someone in the office wants a new advertisement, mailing or letter generated, they write the text they want in Word, print it out, and then hand that paper to the IT department for processing.)

This techno-illiteracy, it seems to me, can not be solved without time consuming training on the computers and software people use, even though they use them every day. (This may, of course, be an isolated case limited to the people in the office I work in.//1) Part of the reason for techno-illiteracy is the extreme, and I do mean extreme, complexity of the Microsoft Windows menu/dialog-box interface--but that is a separate issue.

Perhaps to grasp the difficulties of office document life, I should just examine the life of a typical office document.

The act of saving a document makes no sense to the inexperienced computer user, I see it all the time. Discussing this is a bit off topic, but consider: you are presented with a dialog-box with a "save in" location which is the current folder--you do not see the entire folder path--with a linear, branching folder hierarchy knowing the full folder path is crucial to understanding where you are in the Windows computer file system. And in this "current folder" there is a list of other documents and other sub-folders.

If simply clicking the "save" button was enough there would be no issues, but saving documents in a single location is too confusing when one has thousands of documents to deal with. Hence, we put documents in folders. But folders live in "paths" and traversing back-and-forth along these paths is difficult when all one sees is one part of the path only.//2

Having successfully created a new document in a word processor, it now exists as a file somewhere on some file system on some computer in the office. With the standard set of "office productivity software" there is no easy way of locating documents--one has to know the full name and the full path of the document to find it--you have to know where it is located to locate it. All the programs I have used have a small "recent file history", and there is a Windows "search" interface--that is it.

Broken piece number one: Non-intuitive, overly complex GUI designs.

Once we have documents, and have learned the ways of saving and opening them, we start to do things with them. Most of the documents are to be printed; letters for example, letters on "letterhead". To print a document on letterhead (a really nice paper with or logo, printed by a real printer) we have to format it to fit the margins. This process generally goes well for that is what word processors are designed for. You can even set the word processor up to default to the right settings for new documents. This works well. Until you need to change something global.

If your office is like ours you have many documents. And when you change something global, like the size of your logo, which effects say, the top margin, with a standard office word processor, you have to manually change every document you have to update to the new margin settings. Sometimes, word processors can store "styles" in a common template, but not some things like margins and paper size.

Broken piece number two: Outdated software design of embedding sheet parameters within each document.

Microsoft Office documents are, of course, of a proprietary format. This means that the documents I create can not be shared with anyone who does not have the same program that I used to create the document; sometimes even the exact same version. (This is known as "planned obsolescence".) This problem is so widespread that we all know about it. It is quite ironic, to me anyway, that the main "solution" to this is a well advertised, widespread format calling itself a "portable document format" that is itself a proprietary format which requires everyone to have the same program and sometimes even the exact same version to read.//3

So, let's say I want to send someone one of my Microsoft Word documents as a "portable document". I load the document in Microsoft Word and I "print" it using a specially purchased "driver" which converts it to a PDF. I now have one of these "portable documents." Of course, I then have hundreds of these portable documents, one for each of the Word documents I originally created. And, of course, when I change my logo, I have to manually locate, edit and "print" each document anew.

Why don't you just change to a new word processor you ask? One that saves as PDF? You can't. PDFs do not work that way. Adobe only provides printer drivers. Adobe Acrobat, Adobe's PDF editor, is extremely limited in what it can do. It has no real word processing capabilities, it is basically for "touch ups".//4

Adobe's conversion capabilities are also a bit limited; it does not convert Microsoft Word forms for example, which is a dirty shame. Adobe Acrobat needs to be used for creating PDF forms.//5

Broken piece number three: Vast gap in format conversion software.

Another related problem our office has is that some of our literature we create is printed on pre-printed paper--that is paper which has on it our color company logo. Having paper pre-printed is cheaper than to buy and maintain a high-end printer ourselves. But this "pre-printing" does not have a digital equivalent. So we have to import images into our documents to duplicate the pre-printed paper and then we make the PDF document. What that means is that we have to have two versions of the original document--one without images and one with.

Our office basically has to maintain three or four versions of most of our documents, and we have to manually update each and every one of them.

Broken piece number four: Multiple document formats means multiple programs and editing processes per document.

Then along came the Internet.

The Internet changed everything. Well, it just added to the quagmire. We have, of course, a company Website. And, of course, our literature needs to get "published" on the Web. This means, of course, simply yet another document format--another computer program and another way of converting and editing our existing documents. The result is a fourth version of every piece of our literature that gets to the Web. And another manual edit every time there is a global change.

Broken piece number five: The edit/convert/maintain process grows geometrically with each new format and always requires another proprietary program.

Well, that is how document handling using Microsoft Windows "office productivity software" is currently "done".

A Solution

There are solutions; I think. (Hopefully I will be writing more about them at a later date.) For right now let me offer one solution, not viable for me right now, for it will take a long time to convert to, and in the meantime our office must deal with our current set of documents, but one that I want to work on.

But before I talk of a solution, let me say that the solution is not simply to replace Microsoft Office with StarOffice or OpenOffice. Those do not change the paradigm one bit. They may cost less, but they do the same thing and in the same manner.

Nor is the solution one great-big-does-everything-program like integrated "solutions" such as Lotus SmartSuite or Microsoft Works.

I think the solution is Open Source or Free software using HTML and XML along with programs running on an (internal) Apache server written in a language such as PHP.

All documents would be created and written in ASCII and stored on the server (the editing process would include some sort of WYSIWYG interface). I think that HTML along with CSS and XML will be able to provide a way to format documents just as does any advanced word processor.

I don't think there needs to be a database other than a database of information about the documents; for indexing, searching and reporting.

This way will present other issues (many I have not even thought of). You can not highlight a line and make it bold when you are editing an HTML form and text is in a TEXTAREA tag. And you don't want to have to mark your text with some really weird syntax just to italicize a few words in a paragraph.

But here is something I just went through, and if I describe it, it may help in conveying my meaning.

Someone gave we a word document of a bunch of paragraphs of text and wanted the text up on their website. Each first line and last line of the text was to be bold. There were about a hundred paragraphs.

Microsoft Word's export to HTML feature is horrible. And I was not about to go through the process of highlight a line of text with the mouse, press Control-B, highlight another line of text with the mouse press Control-B, highlight another line of text press Control-B, ...

No need to. I saved the text as ASCII. Wrote a PHP script (I could just as easily used Perl) to do the formatting for me; the script generated output in HTML. Viola! I now have the text along with a small piece of code that does the formatting they wanted. Perhaps they want italics instead of bold? Minor change to the PHP and I re-run the script. Viola!

That is the paradigm I am thinking of. Text and an algorithm to display/convert that text. Perhaps there would be a template describing the attributes of layout. Text, a template, and an algorithm. We have the text, assign it to a category, the category has a layout and we run a script to convert the text using the layout to create either, a letter, a fax, a memo, a brochure.

We can do anything with Free Software. But we will always be limited by the current Broken Office Paradigm.

Notes:

1. Some of the users in our office show absolutely no initiative when it comes to computers.

2. I can write much more about some of the problems relating to GUI designs, but wanted to keep this short. Maybe later...

3. I mean Adobe PDF of course. Perhaps PDF readers are freely available enough now, but the format remains proprietary. Perhaps there are some third-party programming libraries, but still, it is a very difficult process to manipulate PDF documents; especially to convert to and from PDF document. Try it with forms and see.

4. Perhaps there is a word processor out there that saves in PDF form. I am not about to look. The process of trying demo versions is too time consuming. Besides, converting to yet another set of programs to edit documents is a long and expensive process.

5. There are some other conversion programs out there, but again, the process of finding them is long and can be expensive.

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