IS THE DOCUMENT DEAD?
Paul Hetherington, Senior Consultant, Unisys Ltd
In today's world where we have almost universal
access to electronic forms of communication through a multitude of media
channels, is the concept of a "document" still a valid one in
the business and government environments? Is it the case that documents
should be relegated to the entertainment or domestic arenas? A jumping
off point would be to try to define what we mean by "document".
The dictionary defines a document as "a writing conveying information".
There is also a suggestion that the information that the document carries
is factual and reliable, as in the act of documenting. Certainly, any
attempt at definition has to cover items that are in every day use, such
familiar things as letters, lists, printed forms and contracts. As well
as these paper items covered in writing or printing, it is generally accepted
that documents today include graphical elements such as diagrams, maps
and even pictures. But how far can we push the definition; is a word processor
file held on a computer system that incorporates a video clip really a
document? How do you print it? And then there is the Internet. Information
on the Web is organised conventionally as HTML documents, but will contain
links to other documents that may or may not belong to the author. So
how do you draw a line around the set of linked items that make up the
document of interest? There is a further problem. These days, many documents
that you view on the screen are generated at viewing time from information
held in a datastore. Therefore any item (including this one) that you
are reading through your browser may have no real existence as an independent
document at all!
Changing role of the document
The document has a long and honourable history.
For most of recorded time the document has been the primary, if not only
means of storing, organising and retrieving information in a portable
form. Prior to the development of the document, mankind was limited in
how information could be shared. Cave paintings may be artistic and carved
inscriptions may be impressive, but they are difficult to transport, let
alone to copy. From time that the Sumerian clerks invented writing in
3100BC to record business and administrative transactions in cuneiform
people have been used to information having a physical form and for it
to be readily accessible. Of course the document has evolved over time,
becoming closely identified with flexible sheets and writing in ink from
the time that the Egyptians utilised papyrus as a recording medium. However,
many different methods have been tried from Mycenaean Greek scribes recording
their Cretean palace inventories on clay tablets in Linear B script, the
knotted strings of the Inca bookkeepers in pre-Columbian America and the
wax tablets used throughout the classical Mediterranean world.
This association between documents and paper was strengthened by the invention
of printing in China, and was really consolidated in Medieval Europe,
since the alphabetic system of writing requires very few symbols and is
therefore well suited to the mechanics of moveable type. This meant that
standard documents, such as books, pamphlets and newspapers could be reproduced
quickly and relatively cheaply without needing vast number of clerks to
copy them by hand. There remained however the unique or small run documents,
for example legal agreements and contracts, which still needed to be produced
in the old way using a pen, ink and paper, as printing would not be cost
The introduction of the first commercially viable typewriter by E. Remington
& Sons in 1873 brought the capability of producing documents with
a printed appearance within the range of modest businesses, and even individuals.
Soon after Mark Twain was the first author to typewrite the complete manuscript
of a novel on a Remington machine. I am proud to say that the E. Remington
& Sons is one of the ancestors of my own company, Unisys Corporation.
With the advent of computers, and in particular the introduction of the
personal computer developments have continued apace and the methods by
which documents could be created and managed have become more and more
sophisticated. However it is only recently that the connection between
the idea of a document as a medium for containing information and its
physical manifestation as a collection of printed pages has been called
Role of the document in today's e-business and
So far I have discussed the document mainly in
terms of its information content and the material from which it is made.
There is another aspect of documents that needs to be considered, especially
in the business and government worlds - the document as the object of
work. In many cases the document is not just a passive container of information,
but is also a signal that somebody needs to do something with the information.
The document is thus also a transport mechanism carrying the customer's
or citizen's information and desires to the business or government department.
Examples of documents used in this way abound; the application form; the
tax form; the letter of complaint. All of these need to be recognised,
read, understood and processed. This is until now. Today there are number
of trends in the use of technology which have the potential to radically
alter the role of the document and may bring about its demise.
Unsurprisingly it is the Internet which is having the most influence on
the document as a tool of business. Technologies such as email and Electronic
Data Interchange (EDI) have been important, but have not been radical
in changing the fundamental nature of the transaction between the individual
and the organisation. Indeed the nature of this form of interaction has
not changed since the invention of postal systems; the person creates
a document remotely, sends it to the recipient who interprets the information
contained and reacts to it. Electronic systems have just decreased the
transportation time, without fundamentally improving the process. The
advent of the World Wide Web and the Browser have changed the nature of
the interaction between an organisation and its customers by opening a
real-time "pipeline" between its systems and the customer. Information
is not transformed into an intermediate form and can be validated, corrected
and submitted whilst the customer is present. The side effect of this
method of operation is that the burden, and hence the cost, of the data
entry phase of the transaction is born by the customer not the business.
Despite the apparent downside, most customers seem to react positively
to this experience, and a significant proportion of them prefers to interact
in this way. There still remains the problem that some transactions may
still require authentication by means of a signature, but developments
in security technology should reduce or even eliminate this requirement
in the near future.
The trend towards self-service operation is not confined just to Internet
operations. Many firms are turning to this way of lowering the costs of
maintaining information about their employees. Unisys is a pioneer in
this field and has developed extensive self-service human resource applications
around the PeopleSoft HR suite. We are now establishing the next trend
by offering to outsource these HR functions for other organisations
Having captured the customer's input directly and carried out the process
requested, most organisations will summarise the information supplied
and provide the status of the transaction. In all cases, this will be
represented as a document in some form or another. Moreover the expectation
is that this document will be printed. The reason for this is very simple,
most private customers and citizens have no application systems of their
own capable of handling this data in any other way - the universal domestic
purchasing and accounting system is yet to be developed. In other words,
the pipeline that has been established stops short of being truly two-way
- the boundary is the browser at the customer's end.
The future of the document
The document clearly is alive and well today.
It fulfils the useful function of encapsulating a set of related information
in an easily understood and familiar format. This is true whether the
document has a physical manifestation or only exists as computer generated
metaphor, or is something in between. There will also continue to be people
who cannot or will not communicate electronically and the paper document
has still to be accommodated.
The question remains; can we eliminate the document from tomorrow's organisational
e-world? I think that we can, if we want to. I can envisage a world where
personal knowledge bases are available. These knowledge bases would interact
with each other in ways that do not require the organisation of information
into document-like structures, but rather into "knowledge elements"
to be combined as the situation demands. But, and it is a big but, how
are you to interact with your own personal knowledge base? Input should
be no problem with speech recognition making rapid strides in reliability,
perhaps to be followed by direct thought input. I suspect however, that
output will continue to be recognisable as a document whether it is viewable
on screen or is projected directly on the retina.
Paul Hetherington is a Senior Consultant for Unisys
Ltd where he provides specialist advice and design expertise to the field
of business process automation, with a primary focus on workflow, document
management and end-user computing. He has worked with major financial
institutions in Europe and America and with local and central government
organisations in the UK, at all levels within client organisations.