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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 November, 2003, 11:29 GMT
Document deluge threatens firms
Inside a computer hard disk, Eyewire
Lots of documents eat up storage space
Businesses are drowning in a sea of similar documents reveals research into the way that British people work.

Documents can be copied so easily that most workers spend lots of time finding the latest version of contract or proposal they are collaborating on.

The survey found that e-mail and poorly designed software was fostering bad habits and stifling good practice.

It also revealed that 86% of firms do not feel in control of producing important documents to meet deadlines.

Hidden and dangerous

"This whole area is not working well at all," said Andrew Pearson, general manager of Workshare that commissioned the research.

"We knew there was a problem but we were shocked by the scale of it," he said.

"The globalisation of business is loading more of a reliance on documents," said Mr Pearson, "collaboration is taking place through the text rather than the telephone."

The firms questioned said they had about 23 important documents, such as marketing plans, contract bids, product information and new product proposals, being worked on at any one time.

On average, the research found seven people will be working on each of these important documents.

Discarded documents in a bin, Eyewire
Digital documents can be hard to dispose of.
The combination of lots of documents, lots of authors and e-mail that made it easy to send copies of files to co-workers was creating real problems for staff trying to work together.

"E-mail has become a kind of document repository by proxy," said Mr Pearson, "a lot of people are spending a lot of time looking for the latest version of a document."

To make matters worse the vast majority of finished business documents, 90%, started life as something else.

Many people tend to simply copy earlier examples of similar documents and then change the few key parts to turn it into something else said Mr Pearson.

But, said Mr Pearson, this "save as" culture could lay firms open to all kinds of problems because hidden information inside files reveals the document's true genesis.

Worryingly, he said, most people, 68% of those questioned, did not know about this hidden data or that it revealed who had written a document and what earlier drafts looked like.

Famously, the government was caught out earlier this year when analysis of this hidden data showed who had been working on documents about Iraq's readiness for conflict.

Only 4% of the firms questioned said they had a process in place for ensuring that collaboration works well.

Despite this 63% of firms said they faced financial penalties for not getting documents finished on time.

Mr Pearson said changing the bad habits that office software was fostering was difficult.

"You cannot change the way that people work," he said, "you have to give them something that fits in with the way they work now."

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