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I’ve been thinking some more on the past, present and future of documents.   I don’t know exactly where this post will end up, but I think this will help me clarify some of my own thoughts.

First, I think technology has clouded our thinking and we’ve been equivocating with the term “document”, using it for two entirely different concepts.

One concept is of the document as the way we do work, but not an end-in-itself.  This is the document as a “collaboration surface”,  short-lived, ephemeral, fleeting, quickly created and equally quickly forgotten.

For example, when I create a few slides for a project status report, I know that the presentation document will never be seen again, once the meeting for which it was written has ended.  The document serves as a tool for the activity of presenting status, of informing.  Twenty years ago we would have used transparencies (“foils”) or sketched out some key points on a black board.  And 10 years from now, most likely,  we will use something else to accomplish this task.    It is just a coincidence that today the tools we use for this kind of work also act like WYSIWYG editors and can print and save as “documents”.  But that is not necessary, and historically was not often the case.

Similarly, take a spreadsheet.  I often use a spreadsheet for a quick ad-hoc “what-if”  calculation.  Once I have the answer I am done.  I don’t even need to save the file.  In fact I probably load or save a document only 1 in 5 times that I  launch the application.   Some times people use a spreadsheet as a quick and dirty database.  But 20 years ago they would have done these tasks using other tools, not document-oriented, and 10 years from now they may use other tools that are equally not document related.  The spreadsheet primarily supports the activity of modeling and calculating.

Text documents have myriad collaborative uses today, but other tools have emerged  as well . Collaboration is moved to other non-document interfaces, tools like wikis, instant messaging, forums, etc.  Things that would have required routing a typed inter-office memo 50 years ago are now done with blog posts.

That’s one kind of document, the “collaboration surface”, the way we share ideas, work on problems, generally do our work.

And then there is a document as the record of what we did.  This is implied by the verb “to document”.   This use of documents is still critical, since it is ingrained in various regulatory, legal and business processes.  Sometimes you need “a document.”  It won’t do to have your business contract on a wiki.  You can’t prove conformance to a regulation via a Twitter stream.  We may no longer print and file our “hard” documents, but there is a need to have a durable, persistable, portable, signable form of a document.  PDF serves well for some instances, but not in others.  What does PDF do with a spreadsheet, for example?  All the formulas are lost.

This distinction, between these two uses of documents,  seems analogous to the distinction between Systems of Engagement and Systems of Record, and can be considered in that light.    It just happens that each concept happened to use the same technology, the same tools, circa the year 2000,  but in general these two concepts are very different.

The obvious question is:  What will the future being?   How quickly does our tool set diverge?   Do we continue with tools that compromise, hold back collaborative features because they must also serve as tools to author document records?   Or do we unchain collaborative tools and allow them to focus on what they do best?