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Docs and Spreadsheets

I worked as a middle manager in a large corporation so I’ve been on the sending and receiving end of emailed spreadsheets and Word docs. Why? Because that’s how business was done.

I worked in a training organization where we were required to report on training completion numbers. The official training completion report was created by me (and others) copy/pasting a list of names filtered from a website into a specific tab on a spreadsheet, deleting the extra cells that were not needed, and making sure the VLOOKUPS in the spreadsheet actually did what they were supposed to do. As manual as this sounds this was the automated version. We used spreadsheets as a business automation tool.

Since we didn’t have the option to just get completion numbers from the website we had to create our own solution. It probably took 5 people 200 or so hours (not including continued maintenance) to get to that level of automation when it would have taken a person on the web team an hour or two to just add in a completion percentage. This was the process for reporting numbers that carried penalties in the millions.

A lot of the reason we had to do the completion numbers like this is because we had agents who were on vacation, sick leave, FMLA, absent, or simply didn’t work for us anymore. It seems to me that since this is an employee and I am able to track that status somewhere it would be trivial to pull from our HR solution (PeopleSoft) and compare with the vendor’s site.

I think reasonable people could agree that this wasn’t a good solution for the problem we had.

I’m not quite sure how the idea for Google Docs came about but I imagine it went something like this, “Executive: I’m tired of having to email people Excel spreadsheets and Word Docs because I can never tell who is reading them or who they might have emailed them to” but it was probably way more creepy.

I’m also not sure what problem they are solving other than “I no longer have to email these docs or spreadsheets around” and creating the problem of “I don’t know what anyone has shared with me, when, or how to find it”. I spend about 30 minutes a week trying to find an old spreadsheet or doc that someone has shared with me. To combat that problem I’ve begun making a copy of each doc that someone sends me so that I’ll be able to find it. Another thing that trips me up here is the difference between “Drive” and the Apps, I don’t know what data will be stored where.

So what is the problem that is being solved with Docs? Is it that we need a minimally viable word processor in a browser (that breaks copy/paste about half the time)? Or the ability to share and restrict permissions to the file? Or the ability to allow everyone to view, some to comment, and others to edit?

Spreadsheets seem to exist to keep arbitrary numeric data and Docs seem to exist to keep anything longer than an email. Is that all? Billions of dollars over the last 20 years for something as simple as “arbitrary numeric data” and “more information than will fit in an email”.

I’ve seen a couple start-ups in the last few days that are trying to fill a perceived gap between what companies actually need and what is provided by Google Apps. Spaces, which was recently bought by one of my favorite group chat applications, Slack (affiliate link) is clearly aimed at the Docs aspect. The second is airtable which is obviously going after the spreadsheet aspect.