Collaborative File Sharing and Management: An Explainer

Prompted by the enterprise shift from the desktop to shared collaborative spaces, “files” are now getting a lot less individual, a lot more collaborative.

Lisa Schmeiser

December 23, 2020

4 Min Read
file sharing
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Tech has no shortage of buzzy new technologies – and cutting through the hype to see what will actually impact the enterprise can be challenging. We're here to help. Starting in 2021, our contributors will give a rundown on an emerging tech and whether it'll pay off to pay attention to it. For collaboration in 2021, here’s our look at collaborative file sharing and management.

To see the other trends highlighted in our IT Trends To Watch series, read our Emerging IT Trends To Watch report.

What Is Collaborative File Sharing and Management?

“Collaborative file sharing and management" (also described as shared file creation and management) is another way of referring to files that are hosted in a cloud and can be created, accessed and edited by more than one person. The name is a bit of a misnomer, because while the name “file” refers to the digital asset in question, the act of simultaneous viewing and revising pushes this artifact well beyond the paper analogue of a file. The technology is really more of a paradigm shift away from the desktop-folders-files metaphor – where each item is fixed and person – and toward a space in which people create and modify datasets in a communal environment.

How Long Has It Been Around?

Google Docs made its debut in 2006 and the paradigm shift began moving slowly then, starting in education circles at first (a lot of school districts use Google apps) and then entering the enterprise as those kids grew up and got jobs. By 2017, Nielsen’s decision to switch from Microsoft’s suite of cloud-based office services to Google’s was driven in large part by a younger workforce that was already familiar with the applications and preferred to work with them. In 2018, different apps in Microsoft Office started playing with the idea that it was ridiculous to interrupt a communications flow in one app to switch to another in order to complete a task and follow up on a conversation; Outlook users were subsequently able to edit Excel files in a message instead of having to switch from Outlook to Excel to manipulate the file and then mail back the revised artifact.

Why Are People Paying Attention to It Now?

2020 was a huge year for retraining thousands of people away from a workplace computing experience based around siloed applications and files that lived on a desktop and toward a daily working environment set in a collaborative workspace like Slack, Teams or Zoom. This collaborative file sharing approach is defined by real-time communication, file exchange and editing. This has broken down the idea of a file being a static and discrete item where changes are propagated by one author and documented via iterative versions.

As Forrester principal analyst Cheryl McKinnon has written, “Documents can be assembled sets of objects, with context and meaning wrapped around them (i.e., metadata). Or for truly cloud-native authoring tools, documents are Blobs in a giant cloud database, never files at all.”

From the backend perspective, the blowup in document editing is all about associating and retrieving dataset as needed. For the end user, collaborative document editing has managed to retain some of the qualities of old-school files – they’re persistent and stable artifacts that can be searched, shared and stored – while also adding an element of dynamic, real-time modification as people work together on them.

Who Benefits From It?

Enterprises that are continuing to use collaborative workspaces as their primary hub for employee communication and coordination will benefit when any of these cloud-based tools incorporate more collaborative document editing and data analysis tools into the everyday flow. But the real benefit may be for data professionals. One of the ongoing issues in the enterprise is data discovery and indexing – knowing what data is generated in the enterprise, where it lives and how to retrieve and manipulate it. Collaborative file sharing and management provides more access to the information. It’s not locked in an email thread, it’s not hiding in an obscure folder structure in someone’s drive – it’s there to be searched and sorted in a collaborative space.

Where Can You Get It?

Collaborative file sharing and management tools are offered by a number of vendors. And tools to handle these chunks of information and their attendant context will only grow in response to the workflows people have fostered in these collaborative environments. This is already happening in Microsoft Teams, as users are able to edit Office files in Teams. For competitor Slack, the ability to edit files directly won’t be as straightforward – the company doesn’t have a suite of data-crunching and word-processing tools to easily integrate into its chatspace – but Slack does offer the ability to have discussions attached to specific files uploaded into its workspace, which is a way to capture collaborative communication and index it for search and referral later. Being able to attach conversations to files is another way to explode the silo’d, file-on-a-desktop model.

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