Social Documents


Document management sucks! There – I said it. I challenge you to prove me wrong.

I haven’t yet found a document management system (DMS) that’s fit for purpose, and I think I know why.

It’s not about the technology. Documentum might hark from the client server era, and Alfresco trumps that with its SOA, but these are implementation details that matter not to the user.

Paper is two dimensional

It’s about the metaphor. Specifically the dimensionality of the metaphor. Pieces of paper are 2D, and so are document management systems. This makes sense in the physical world. I can only put my piece of paper in one place, which I might call a file or a folder or whatever. Computer file systems copy this metaphor, and document management systems copy it again – they just call a folder a workspace to make it sound more collaborative.

The real world is multidimensional

And we have IT abstractions that can be too. When I write an engagement letter to a client I shouldn’t be forced to ‘file’ it in a ‘folder’ called ‘engagement letter’ or ‘clientX’. I should be able to give it multiple attributes (tags), and virtual ‘folders’ can be assembled from those attributes. Thus if I want to see a library of engagement letters I select that tag, if I want to see all of the stuff relating to clientX I choose their tag.

‘Oh’, I hear you cry, ‘tagging takes effort, and people will forget’. That’s a real problem, but I think it’s solvable. We stopped trying to categorise everything into some massive (2D) taxonomy a long time ago, and decided that search would fill the gap. Search is good when it works, but it can be disorderly – hence the glib one liner ‘why are you searching when you should be finding’. The right way to do this is to make search part of the process at the front end rather than the back end. Clippy returns – ‘it looks like you’re saving an engagement letter to clientX – shall I tag that “engagement letter” and “clientX” for you?’.

The Social Aspect

We’ve seen great usage of tags already in social bookmarking sites like, so why not bolt on that functionality to document management (after all a ‘web page’ and a ‘document’ are essentially variations of the same thing). This raises the question of whose tags – my tag, your tag, the company tag. But who cares – this is what educated suggestions can help with, particularly when search can identify similarities with other documents. As JP wrote earlier in the week, Social Objects are important, sadly I fear that document management systems are anti-social. A DMS may provide a ‘shared space’ for a document as a social object, but it fails to provide rich support for the other activities that should be taking place. Yes, there’s metadata in a DMS, but not typically the sort of open and collaborative metadata that JP is referring to. This is where I can get excited some more about initiatives like Open Bookmarks (which is best described here). Not only does this potentially solve the state synchronisation issues I was concerned about last month, but it provides the perfect platform for social interactions around documents – a means to provide curation.


This is an area that can’t be ignored. As soon as you get into a conversation about accessing documents you’re quickly into a conversation about preventing access to documents. I think this isn’t as hard a problem as people make out. Identity Management practices can be applied equally to people and the documents they interact with. People have attributes (like ‘Director’ and ‘works in HR’ and ‘based in ‘Switzerland’) and these can be synthesised into abstract roles (like ‘Swiss HR Directors’). Documents also have attributes (tags) that can be used to provide not just logical views as discussed above, but logical groupings for the purpose of security policies (for example all documents relating to ClientX can only be seen by the ClientX project team, except NDAs and engagement letters, which are also visible by legal). The policy here provides a mapping between document views and people roles, and should be fairly self explanatory (and easy to audit).

Now can somebody please build this for me?

PS This is yet another reason why we shouldn’t have software patents. Firstly this whole thing is obvious (at least to me), and secondly Xerox have this, but in their usual style appear to have done precious little with it. All that’s achieved here is blocking a startup from implementing (or robbing them blind later for ‘infringement’).

4 Responses to “Social Documents”

  1. It’s interesting to see another reference to ‘social documentation’ on Cloud Avenue in their post about a Documentation Maturity Model. It’s a shame that the infographic isn’t viewable in is full glory.

  2. Chris,

    EXCELLENT goal to set! I am happy to inform you that what you seek, that is, “The policy here provides a mapping between document views and people roles, and should be fairly self explanatory (and easy to audit).”, as well as real-time enforcement by the appropriate enforcement engine defined by the context-oriented policy, has been developed and delivered, WITH YOUR guidance while you were at Credit Suisse! InDorse Technologies has pioneered the ability to contextually discover session information provided by the combination of identity management, history usage intelligence, and file/document content & metadata – then in real-time, transparently, and automatically deliver the file to the authenticated and authorized user in the format and enforced policies. Moreso, as the file is used AFTER download, the usage intelligence of that file is updated to the file’s owner in real-time requiring no software over the internet. It is my humble opinion that with such an automated, context-oriented assurance solution, document management in the age of social networks AND knowledge worker collaboration can now be made to be safe and secure, most notably to help organizations prove reasonable controls over regulated data AS WELL AS provide simple understanding and controls for sensitive data it wants to manage, e.g. company secrets, equity models, pharmaceutical recipes, etc. I would like to publicly thank you for sponsoring us at our start to get off the ground with the opportunity at your former employer! If you would like some further information, drop me a line! I’ll be in Boston at the AGC event… If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a demonstration is worth a book, and InDorse can assure that picture with InDIA as well as the book in PDF or DOCX format, while I can track the usage of that book as used by people on the internet without compromising their privacy and without me needed to install any software on their computers to do so with my property! Remember, the right security tool for the right job!

  3. It seems that others have come to similar conclusions (some time ago) – Hierarchical File Systems are Dead

  4. 4 gilkedar

    first off, the goal you set is an admirable one.
    My interest is the xerox patent. They can maybe patent a particular method to index and recall documents and files according to attributes, but they can’t patent the whole system, the whole idea. That’s the idea of patents, they assign a certain method to perform a task and then derive money from the product (or not). It’s the same as microsoft writing a patent for all OS’s, as opposed to them writing a patent for the Windows OS. Same with apple and their touch screen, patent for method, not idea. So the only thing remaining is actually writing a software that implements your idea’s, without using xerox’s methodology. You can write a trademark for a word or phrase in a certain context, but can’t demand money from people who use different words that have the same meaning, and get the same idea across in the same context.

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