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There are few things more indispensable to the function and success of a business than the document. As a unit and vehicle, the document allows people to capture, gather, share and archive information. It is the centerpiece of everything from meetings to customer interactions and business deals.
But how often do you take a step back to think critically about the document itself? I believe it’s time to ask: “Is there untapped value in the 8.5 by 11 we have yet to extract? Are we limiting ourselves by seeing the document merely as a holistic and indivisible unit?”
As the industry accelerates down the road of digitization, we are overdue for a paradigm shift in our understanding of documents. It is time to move the focus from the document itself to the data that sits on top of it. That is where the real value lies.
What would we gain from such a shift? How close are we to achieving it? Let’s dig in.
Analog 1.0 To Analog 2.0
A document is a legacy unit of computation and delivery. It has served the purpose of sharing various pieces of information via a single vehicle and has historically been physical in nature, precluding it from being subdivided.
Eventually, the paper document was translated into the PDF, a mere analog of the physical paper. The PDF prioritized users’ psychological relationship to the document while failing to maximize the benefit and value computers could provide.
As we move further into the digital era, we are in need of a second iteration of this translation, this time spurred on by a growing awareness that it is the document’s data that is valuable, not the piece of paper itself. This is because, when the data is extracted, what one can do with it and learn from it has endless business value.
This data-first approach also introduces great flexibility into a business’s processes and gives it the ability to automate more easily.
Learning From Tweets And TikToks
So why is it time for a paradigm shift? In many ways, documents have fallen behind as digitization has increased the speed of data transmission while simultaneously decreasing the unit of data transmission.
We know this story well: We’ve seen the information we consume every day online reduce in size again and again—going from blogs to Tweets, and from YouTube videos to TikToks. Smaller units of information have taken over because they have legs. Unlike their larger counterparts, they can easily be combined, are potentially more valuable when aggregated and can be used individually and in different contexts.
Tweets, for example, can result in multiple different threads of conversation about an individual topic and can even be placed in contexts outside of Twitter, like news articles, to spur entirely different sets of conversations. This is nearly impossible with a blog, which is largely immobile and cannot be engaged with agilely. The blog and the document have this in common.
Using And Reusing Data
An assessment of the document raises questions about what we stand to gain from breaking it down into its constituent data. Businesses should be thinking about how each piece of data on their documents can be utilized beyond its original purpose.
Let’s say you have a document made up of your customer’s name, their business address and an economic element of your business relationship. After using this information to meet the original business need, you should be reusing it in your CRM, your ledger system, your HR platform and so on. The value of each individual data point increases beyond the net value of the document when paired with different data and applied in new ways.
Individual pieces of data are also critical for a business’s analytics. By inputting your data into something as simple as a spreadsheet, you can apply formulas to calculate something that is not initially obvious, examine slices of data to look for trends and transform data points into insights to inform decisions.
The State Of Affairs
While the shift from document to data is necessary, we still find ourselves in the early stages of the transition. There are a couple of important forces at play that will affect how quickly this shift happens.
On one hand, we have the tailwinds: There is an ongoing explosion of SaaS and systems of record. When a business has a large number of vertical applications helping run its day-to-day and storing and analyzing its data, the need to synchronize that data between systems and deliver it to customers, employers and others only increases. Being able to collect data from a variety of places, contextualize it within a document, deliver it to necessary parties and bring new data back via the document becomes critical for a business’s success.
On the other hand, we have the headwinds: The market has yet to properly mature. While data is recognized as important, many businesses still don’t understand what data they need and why, how to prepare it or put it in the right place and what to do to extract its value. While SaaS companies might have an easier time undergoing the document to data paradigm shift, they will ultimately have to wait for the market—and their customers—to catch up.
There is hope that this shift will pick up the pace, not only as the market realizes the value of data but because it will understand the business efficiency that a data-first mindset can unlock. With the right tools and a focus on data over documents, businesses could eliminate the extra work that comes with managing data silos, manually moving documents around and correcting errors. They could use their time, instead, to focus on strategic priorities.
So, what can we conclude? The document as we understand it is obsolete, smaller units of data are winning out and the sooner we turn to see the document for what it is—a series of data points with untapped potential—the sooner we’ll be able to maximize the data’s value to propel our businesses forward.
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