Save Time on Document Collaboration
With Project Management Software
IndustryView | 2015
Document collaboration is one of the most important processes companies engage in—yet studies indicate that many employees encounter challenges with it. To learn more, Software Advice surveyed employees who collaborate on documents at work. This report will help companies understand how project management (PM) software can aid this process by enabling improved communication, file organization and more efficient ways of tracking document changes.
Regardless of size, most businesses today deal with extraordinary amounts of content in numerous document types. These files often pass through many hands and undergo changes from a variety of employees and departments. In certain industries, effective document collaboration may be crucial to success—especially if the documents shared contain critical company information.
And yet, 83 percent of employees lose time each day to document collaboration issues. According to other research, 86 percent of employees say a lack of collaboration or poor communication is to blame for “workplace failures.”
Effective document collaboration, on the other hand, can reduce the time employees spend searching for documents and deciphering and communicating changes to those documents.
In the context of this report, “effective document collaboration” refers to:
In this report, Software Advice explores common document collaboration practices in today’s workplace, and what benefits and challenges organizations that use PM software face. We surveyed employees who regularly collaborate on documents, and singled out PM software users to identify the differences in how these employees collaborate compared to the overall sample.
We first wanted to know how employees communicate about document updates. Despite the numerous tools available through specialized software, a large majority of employees (82 percent, combined) still use email to communicate updates to documents they collaborate on. Forty-seven percent send emails with links to shared files, while 35 percent send emails with the files attached.
The prevalence of email makes sense, given the ubiquity of the medium. But just because everyone has email doesn’t mean they should use it, notes Christian Marchsreiter, CEO and founder of document collaboration software SMASHDOCs.
“Email is the quickest, dirtiest and easiest way to send you a file and say, ‘let’s collaborate,’” he says. “[But] after that, there are only problems.”
The first glaring challenge is maintaining version control. As Marchsreiter points out, sharing a document via an email attachment creates multiple versions of the same document. The original version is copied when it’s attached to the email, and that copy is duplicated again when it’s downloaded by the recipient. Any updates must then be overwritten on the version each person has to ensure version integrity.
Samir Penkar, marketing director for Trissential, a business consulting firm, is a regular speaker on project management. Using email with attachments, he says, is “a very ineffective method of working. One of the biggest advantages of using project management software [instead] is that version control is built in.”
PM software serves as a central repository where documents can be saved, commented on and shared throughout the company. Such systems automatically provide version control, because extra copies of documents are stored and accessed from a central location, rather than on users’ computers.
Asking respondents how many use software specifically designed for project management, we find that 18 percent do, while a combined 82 percent use other methods. When comparing these groups, a much smaller percentage of PM software users use email to communicate document updates (15 percent) than non-PM software users (40 percent). This is likely because software users opt for the built-in communications functionality such solutions offer.
When asked how they store documents they collaborate on, respondents are split. Forty percent use a shared, company-wide internal server, while another 40 percent use a cloud-based storage solution, such as Dropbox or Google Drive.
Storage is essential to document collaboration, as shared documents should be easily accessible by any and all parties working on them. According to Penkar, the split in storage methods likely speaks to a split in company philosophy.
“If your company already has an [internal server], you’re more likely to build on that,” he says. This is because an in-house intranet offers more control over the storage architecture (which can be built exactly to company specifications).
While some prefer to maintain this sort of control, there are also distinct advantages to cloud storage. Documents in the cloud can be accessed through most devices with an Internet connection, and cloud storage is often less expensive and easier to implement and maintain than a company-wide, internal server. User access can also be controlled using cloud storage solutions.
According to Marchsreiter, the issue with an internal server is “you have to install a lot of stuff on your computer, and manage VPN connections and a lot of certificates. And of course, these company-wide [internal server] solutions are not made to be used with mobile.” (VPNs, or virtual private networks, allow employees to access a company’s intranet database through an Internet connection, and are often used by remote employees.)
While the percent of those who store documents in their PM solution is comparatively small in the chart above, this doesn't necessarily mean few people are using PM software. Instead, it may reflect that many cloud storage solutions feature built-in integrations with this type of software.
Indeed, 78 percent of PM software users in our sample say their software integrates with their storage solution. Integration makes it easier to find documents, as they can be stored, searched for and located within the context of the project someone is working on.
Marchsreiter notes that many PM systems also offer “tagging” functionality. This allows the document owner to create keyword “tags” relevant to the content, which other collaborators can use to search for the document. For example, if someone creates a chart with statistics on education, keyword tags might include “education” and “stats.” This functionality is especially useful if a collaborator can’t remember the name of a document, but remembers what the content is about.
We next asked respondents which considerations are most important to them when it comes to effectively collaborating on files with co-workers. While there is no clear winner, the highest percentage of respondents (19 percent) cite “finding files easily.”
As companies grow, internal document storage structures can become complex. As noted above, integrating storage solutions with PM software that uses tagging is a big first step companies can take to help collaborators find files more easily.
Other considerations respondents find important for document collaboration are tracking changes and real-time editing (each selected by 16 percent). Real-time edits—which appear to all users on a shared document as they are made—are a very helpful benefit provided by a variety of software solutions, notably Google Docs. This functionality allows users to access the latest version of a document instantly, without the hassle of communication channels.
However, collaborators may not know exactly what changes have been made from one version to the next. This is where tracking changes comes in: Through commenting and version history, collaborators can communicate why and how documents have been revised.
Another important consideration is version control, cited by 15 percent of respondents. This feature lets collaborators know which version they’re working on (but does not communicate the specific changes made to that version).
We also wanted to know what documentation collaboration challenges businesses face. On average, the most common one is tracking changes, which respondents encounter 23 percent of the time.
Challenges with tracking changes, finding documents and sharing large files could stem from our previous finding: 35 percent of respondents use email attachments to communicate. This method presents obvious challenges for sharing large files, as email typically has file size limitations. It also makes it difficult to find files and track changes, since each email attachment creates another version of the original document. The more versions there are, the harder it is to locate the right one and know what changed from one to the next.
Even when documents are shared effectively—meaning, when few (if any) copies of the document are made, and the document is centrally stored in a searchable location—tracking changes can remain tricky. That’s where PM software comes in: many solutions have built-in functionality for tracking changes, or, as SMASHDOCs’ Marchsreiter notes, have add-ons available for this.
Indeed, when we filtered the average time spent on the top two challenges by PM software users and non-users, we found that software users have slightly less difficulty tracking changes and finding documents.
Despite the challenges outlined in the rest of this report, most respondents feel positively about their company’s ability to collaborate effectively on documents. In fact, a combined 85 percent believe their company is “somewhat” to “extremely effective” at doing so.
However, when comparing PM software users with non-users, we find that 40 percent of software users believe their company is “extremely effective” at document collaboration, while only 24 percent of non-users feel the same way.
This is likely due in part to the fact that PM software users encounter challenges less frequently than non-users. PM software functionality, such as document storage and tagging, also helps aid effective collaboration.
Project management solutions offer many different functionality types. To find out which are most helpful in solving the top two challenges above (tracking changes and finding files), we asked users to rate certain functionalities’ effectiveness at finding files and tracking changes.
We found that task tracking, which allows a user to create tasks and deadlines for a given project and monitor the progress of those tasks, is the most effective. Sixty percent say it is “very effective” at helping them track changes, and 58 percent say the same for finding files.
While task tracking is not specifically designed to track changes within documents, it can provide a broader history of a document as it relates to a specific task—either through the task history itself or through comments. As such, it can be useful to employees who lack specific capabilities to track changes, or for those who are curious about changes but don’t want to (or can’t) open documents.
What’s more, Trissential’s Penkar says, task tracking allows you to “know who touched the file last,” since tasks are typically assigned to specific people. By looking at a task, you can see who’s been working on a given document, which can help when a collaborator needs to ask questions.
Document collaboration is a complex yet critical process for any organization, and comes with its own set of unique challenges. Among these, finding files and tracking changes stand out as most persistent among respondents in our sample.
While for some, it may not seem intuitive that project management software can serve as a solution to document collaboration difficulties, our research finds that those who use PM software encounter such challenges less frequently. They tend to use their PM software to store documents and communicate about changes to those documents, effectively making PM software a central hub for document collaboration.
Thus, companies that experience challenges with finding files and tracking changes would be advised to consolidate the storage and communication of documents into a software solution that can provide one centralized location for collaborators. By doing so, collaborators can save time and communicate more effectively when working together on documents.
The highest percentage of respondents (21 percent) identify their industry as “business services.” When considering annual revenue, most of our respondents are categorized as working in small businesses.
To collect the data in this report, we conducted a seven-day online survey of 15 questions, and gathered 377 responses from random employees within the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand. We screened our sample to only include respondents who were employed and collaborated on documents more than once per week for their work. Additionally, for some of our analyses, we separated those respondents who use PM software from those who do not use PM software. Software Advice performed and funded this research independently.
Results are representative of our survey sample, not necessarily the population as a whole. Sources attributed and products referenced in this article may or may not represent client vendors of Software Advice, but vendor status is never used as a basis for selection. Expert commentary solely represents the views of the individual. Chart values are rounded to the nearest whole number.
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