Workshare and Share Alike

Most companies rely on several team members to create documents or employ a review process where a file passes through a potentially labyrinthine approval hierarchy. This once meant a room filled with individuals struggling to coalesce a variety of viewpoints or a mark-it-up and pass-it-on process—each rife with their own limitations. While word processing tools, like Microsoft Word's track changes, have eliminated issues like trying to read a colleague's indecipherable handwriting or epic retyping projects, they come with their own shortcomings. Add to the process the advantages and limitations of email—the de facto collaborative tool for most organizations—and the need to ensure that workers can use familiar office software in secure, accurate, efficient, and traceable ways becomes increasingly important.

With version 3 of its flagship product released last August, Workshare focused on improving the use of Microsoft Office documents and email for collaboration, while protecting companies from the risk of inadvertent disclosure of sensitive information in the process. According to Matthew Brown, director of product management, "Workshare 3 automates some of the business processes in sharing and reviewing documents. After its release, we went back to our clients and talked to them about the problems they were having with things like track changes in MS Word and with email." And, in late April, the company announced Workshare 3.5, which includes several key enhancements as a response to user feedback.

Recognizing that most users collaborate on Word documents, with 3.5, Workshare's functionalities are incorporated into a Mini Panel built right into Word files. Users don't even have to leave Word to compose an email and attach documents. New features include easy retrieval of any emails to which documents were attached. This provides the ability to view document-related comments and instructions contained within email without having to manually search through volumes of email to do so. Brown says, "What we've found is that, while people make changes to the documents, there is extra context communicated through email so we've included this tool to connect these parts of the process."

This version also offers more robust integration with document management systems. Now, all collaboration information is stored alongside the document file itself. The document and all of the proposed changes can be accessed by whoever has full rights to the centrally stored documents. Jeff McClure, Workshare's general manager and EVP, points out that, while it might be as basic as a file system, "Every company has some kind of document repository, which might be an Interwoven or Hummingbird system. They also have desktop productivity and communications software." Julie Stoughton, director of marketing for the Americas, says, "Companies have put a lot of money into these solutions, but the missing piece has been one to bridge the gap between the two," emphasizing that "it's important for people to continue to work the way they do today with the applications they are used to. Word processing changed the way we collaborate, and no one wants to go backwards."

While style may seem less critical than many collaborative concerns, consistent formatting is more than just a question of aesthetics. In fact, formatting changes introduced by various collaborators are a leading cause of document corruption. Needless to say, the costs (be they IT or administrative) of reconstructing a corrupted document that has been through a multitude of reviews could be daunting. With this latest update, Workshare tracks changes to tables, lists, fonts, etc. and defaults to the document owner's preferences and let's them see that a format change was suggested so that they can apply the new style throughout the document if they prefer.

These days, accountability sits at the top of many enterprises' priority lists. Of course, Workshare provides a centralized history of who said what and which changes were accepted into a final document. With its recent upgrade, the product offers the ability to run reports in Word or PDF formats of all proposed changes made. Users can also create metadata reports, which show all of the "hidden information" contained in a document. In addition, users perform a one-button cleanup, which removes this potentially sensitive information prior to the distribution of a document. McClure says, "All of our customers agree that this is a problem waiting to happen."

For the future, the company plans to continue work on building a better bridge between desktop productivity software, email, and the collaborative process. According to McClure, Microsoft estimates that they have 20 million "power users" who employ the product's advanced functions. "We are focused on them," says McClure, "but we believe there's a huge potential to go beyond that. We plan to continue to refine our value proposition for each of the different segments of Microsoft users."