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Guest article by Kaspar Roos / CEO of Aspire CCS.

1  Introduction

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, businesses were already experiencing steady growth in remote working and online collaboration. New developments in online messaging (such as Microsoft Teams and Slack), cloud filesharing services (such as Box and Dropbox), cloud apps such as Quip (now part of Salesforce), and online document collaboration (such as Google Docs) have paved the way for businesses to adapt to new ways of working.

“American general insurance provider Nationwide went to a 98% remote workforce at the start of the pandemic and has now announced a permanent hybrid model with at least 25% of its workers never going back to the office”

Source: Nationwide

Now that the coronavirus pandemic has sparked the largest economic disruption in the history of the modern world, businesses are rapidly adapting to a “new normal”. Any action that can be done digitally, has suddenly and completely shifted into the electronic realm. Employees are working from home more than ever, joining video conferences, and conducting even more business online, while their children are attending school virtually, at least part of the time. Figure 1 illustrates how profound this market disruption has become in just a matter of months. Even after the pandemic is over, it is unlikely that employees will ever return to the office in numbers approaching pre-COVID levels. Working from home is here to stay, even in countries with very formal corporate cultures, such as Germany and Japan.

FIGURE 1: EMPLOYED PERSONS WORKING FROM HOME, 2010-2020

Documents play an essential role in the daily lives of knowledge workers and those with other office-type job functions. They are involved with the creation of business reports, sales documents, and marketing communications as well as those with more stringent requirements such as contracts, insurance policies, regulatory submissions, or technical publications.  If a document is large or complex and requires the tracking and approval of changes and edits from multiple team members – all working remotely – the group’s needs quickly exceed the controls Microsoft Word can offer, even when considering Word online or when Word is integrated with a file sharing service like Sharepoint. 

In this whitepaper, commissioned by SMASHDOCs, we will explore what those needs are, and why collaborative word processing is becoming so relevant in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. We will also look at SMASHDOCs’ technology and discuss why it is very favorably positioned to offer worldclass collaborative editing capabilities that work in conjunction with (and not mainly as an alternative to) Microsoft Word.

We at Aspire are excited about SMASHDOCs’ potential and what it means for the future of the market. Their solution gives businesses and public sector organizations a modern, cloud-based way to collaborate, efficiently and independently on the back of their favorite word processing tool, no matter where in the world they may be. SMASHDOCs has the potential to be the right product at the right time for organizations looking at ways to better enable their staff to work more effectively as a team in today’s digital office.

2  Key Findings 

  • Any organization with more than just a couple of people working together on creating, reviewing, and approving documents should evaluate SMASHDOCs’ high-impact solution for improving the efficiency of remote collaboration.
  • While SMASHDOCs can be used as stand-alone editor, it is not positioned as a replacement of Microsoft Word. Its export and intelligent ingestion capabilites (the so-called “Word round-trip”) allow authors to continue to create and review content in Word, based on an online collaborative and reconcilliation environment that truly extends the value of Word when it comes to secure and compliant collaborative word processing.
  • SMASHDOCs provides an easy-to-use, mature, and fully compliant collaboration and reconciliation solution based on a modern, containerized, micro-services architecture. 
  • SMASHDOCs’ open architecture and highly granular API is easy to embed in industry-specific solutions. 
  • SMASHDOCs’ sweet spot is found in professional environments with large teams working on complex documents that require version control and the creation of an audit trail, such as those found in legal/contracts, publishing, and the public sector.  
  • The generic nature of SMASHDOCS’ technology would bring high synergetic value to many different technology and industry-specific solution provider partners.
    • SMASHDOCs can increase their partners’ competitiveness or enable them to expand into more highly regulated market segments by offering worldclass word processing, review/approval, and meta-data for structured publishing capabilities.
    • SMASHDOCs open architecture also allows for easy integration with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), spell checking, content intelligent, or digital signature API service providers. 

3  Key Trends & Challenges

3.1. Key Trends in collaborative word processing

Collaborative word processing is the ability to work together with a group of people on a single document, either in real-time or asynchronously. It has become an essential function of word processing solutions, and is particularly vital now that so many professionals work from home. Nearly three quarters (72%) of enterprise software buyers in the U.S. now say that “remote access” is important or critically important when evaluating software platforms1.

The word processing software market is essentially Microsoft’s. According to Gartner, in 2018, Microsoft claimed 88% market share with Google Docs picking up 9%. It is interesting to note that Google Docs was created in 2006 to fight Microsoft’s dominant market position by launching an online-driven, free-to-use remote collaboration tool. Oddly, Google then decided to simply copy Microsoft’s existing ways of working instead of differentiating itself by considering the needs of the future.

In recent years, vendors have finally developed new cloud apps that have begun to change the way businesses create and manage documents. In Chapter 6 (How SMASHDOCs Compares to Alternatives in the Market), we will explain how these solutions stack up against what SMASHDOCs has to offer. 

In recent years, we have also witnessed the rise of business messaging platforms such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. These solutions can easily integrate with word processing and cloud storage providers so that remote teams can better share and collaborate on documents. Like file sharing or content management systems, they too rely on the word processing solution to store complete versions. 

Lastly, as collaborative teams increasingly move online, the need for better monitoring increases, particularly when documents have significant business impact. Regulatory submissions, financial reports, contracts, trade confirmations, or documents governed by regulatory requirements may need to be tracked in detail so that auditors can follow exactly what has been done to a document over time. As the regulatory landscape continues to expand, enterprises will see a greater and growing need to create fully auditable documents and paper trails to reduce risk or maintain compliance. 

3.2  Key Challenges 

“Microsoft Office hasn’t really changed but the world around us has changed so much”

Source: Kevin Gibbs, co-founder and CEO of Quip (part of Salesforce)

When teams are working together on documents, the following challenges often occur:

  1. Changes are stored as new document versions. This is a major drawback of any popular word processing or file sharing solution, and it makes it almost impossible for a remote team to manage content changes in an efficient manner. Conflicting versions, uncertain changes, and relying on filenaming conventions are just a few examples of what can go wrong.
  2. Limited or non-existent multi-user commenting. When multiple users work together on a document, they often leave comments for one another. There may be a need for private commenting between certain users, or for multiple users to comment on a single note so that it can be resolved. Auditing or compliance may also require fuller comment tracking.
  3. Multi-user approval and reconcilliation. When large teams work together on documents, reconcilliation – the process of reviewing and working through comments and changes together – may require input from different job roles and invovle various hierachies with differing permissions. For example, some low-level team members may only be able to view a draft and be prohibited from making any changes. Others may be allowed to suggest changes but not actually execute them. When word processing tools do not support multi-user reconcilliation, users will need to turn to costly e-mail or time-consuming manual approval workflows.
  4. Style control. A major drawback of popular word processing solutions like Microsoft Word is that they don’t allow styles to be locked between users. As a result, every user can change or modify document styles, making it very hard to provide consistency in output. 
  5. Track changes. Keeping track of changes in file-based output is a tedious process. First of all, care must be taken so that different versions are not created. If they are, they must be reconcilled before work can continue. When more than a few users are tracking changes, it very quickly becomes difficult to follow, and it can be impossible to reconcille, particularly when substantial changes are made by a large number of collaborators.
  6. Lack of audit trail. In regulated or strictly controlled environments, such as legal or the trading/capital market, it is imperative to track every change of a document and store it in case it needs review at a later stage.

Now, let’s take a look at how SMASHDOCs can help businesses overcome those challenges.

4  SMASHDOCs workings

4.1  Company Background

Toppan Merrill GmbH (SMASHDOCs) was founded in 2013 with the goal of providing efficient collaboration in word processing and document production. Creating documents with multiple persons, either in real-time or asynchronously, can quickly lead to complexity and confusion, especially when a document is subject to different job roles with varying permissions governing which collaborators are allowed to view, comment, edit, approve, or produce content.  

Popular word processing applications such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs have primarily been developed with individual users in mind. While they do support some level of collaboration, their feature sets tend to cover only the most basic use-cases. Compared to SMASHDOCs, their support for critical capabilities in collaborative word processing such as red-lining, change management, version control, real-time collaborative editing, user-based control, archiving, auditing, style control, and rule-based publication automation is either extremely limited or non-existent. Furthermore, these features are unlikely to become an area of focus for Microsoft or Google in the future since they would require a fundamental re-design of their technology.

SMASHDOCs has been designed from the ground up to support collaborative word processing and document production using a modern cloud-optimized architecture (deployed through single-tenancy SaaS, dedicated private cloud, or on-prem) that stores, manages, and processes content at an extremely granular level. Although SMASHDOCs’ technology is well-suited for a range of businesses with less stringent document requirements, the product’s design makes it a perfect fit for the collaborative creation of documents in demanding industries such as the legal and public sectors, capital market/trading, manufacturing, and (book) publishing.

4.2. Key Workings

FIGURE 2: SMASHDOCS PROCESS

“A leading airline alliance sends upcoming press releases in Word format to its members for approval and uploads the dozens of returned versions in SMASHDOCs for ease-of-use review and reconciliation.”

Source: Christian Marchsreiter, managing director at SMASHDOCs

The figure above illustrates SMASHDOCs’ three system phases. First, an existing or newly created document is uploaded into the system, or a document is assembled based on an interview and co-processing within a customer’s business system. The SMASHDOCs technology will decompose the document into granular content fragments which, alongside its structure, are stored in an internal database. 

Next, a one-time setup process is then required to identify collaborators and define permissions (which can be amended or adjusted later on in the process). Once completed, users can collaborate on composing content, see changes made, and determine the output through an online or offline reconciliation process. After that, the content can be locked and finalized for output. It is important to note that at any time during the content collaboration process, a Microsoft Word file can be generated for users who prefer to review and editing content offline. Once they upload their edited Word files onto SMASHDOCs, the technology detects and imports those changes into the system and provides a streamlined compare-and-review process far beyond the “Version Compare” feature MS Word itself offers.

FIGURE 3: THE BENEFITS OF STORING CONTENT FRAGMENTS VS. ENTIRE VERSIONS

The last phase is document production and distribution. Once all changes are finalized, the system can either export to Microsoft Word, or an internal XML-based format is sent to an external 3rd party app or rendering engine (such as Adobe InDesign) which turns the XML into PDF, ePub, or another type of formatted document. The benefit here is that SMASHDOCs does not restrict the formatting and presentation, but rather provides a very structured and standardized manner of control that can be easily integrated into any production process downstream. 

The system stores every content change and includes a full control history, as well detailed reporting and auditing capabilites. Users don’t need to worry about version control or the reconciliation process — the system manages this all by itself.

4.3  Architecture & Cloud

SMASHDOCs is developed on a serverless, containerized architecture and as such, it offers a number of flexible deployment options. Most commonly, it runs on-prem or in a private cloud instance in a data center in a country of the customer’s choice, (such as T-Systems in Germany or Microsoft Azure worldwide). The product comes with a extensive, powerful API allowing easy and quick integration into and connection with other systems. The document is assembled on the fly from content fragments stored in a centralized database while users only see the document representation based on their role and permissions. This approach embeds collaboration at the very heart of the product, ensuring that every action or edit can be tracked, managed, and controlled. 

The modular product’s architecture also allows for dynamic scaling and rapid onboarding. These capabilities are crucial to delivering a fast time-to-value. The product is typically deployed on-prem or as a single-tenant instance running on any public cloud.

4.4  Unique Differentiators

“We have not come across a company in the market that offers collaborative word processing in a similar fashion to SMASHDOCs.”

Source: Kaspar Roos

The technology comes with certain unique features that help collaborative teams create documents efficiently and effectively. The major ones are listed below:

  1. Database-architecture that stores every piece of content, including the document structure, metadata, and tags allowing users to track changes at a granular level beyond what traditional word processing can offer.
  2. Offline review using Microsoft Word. This is a unique and powerful feature giving offline users the ability to export a MS Word file, edit them locally, and upload the changed file to SMASHDOCs which will then decompose the file and synchronize it with the database.
  3. Adaptive redlining. This patented feature by SMASHDOCs shows users ONLY the changes that are needed to fulfill their tasks. Unlike Word that red-lines every tracked change, this feature speeds up review and approval significantly and provides a much better experience for authors and reviewers, particularly when a large group of users or lengthy documents are involved. 
  4. Extensive commenting and comparison features, including the ability to add metadata to comments through tagging, making it easier (in combination with adaptive red-lining) to show only the most relevant comments to other collaborators. The system also allows for comments to be made in private or stealth mode.
  5. SMASHDOCs is available as an app within Microsoft Teams. Teams is Microsoft’s online collaborative working platform. This integration extends that functionality into document creation and collaboration, allowing users to work within their preferred environment.
  6. SMASHDOCs includes other usability features, such as bi-directional referencing, API-based integration with language translation services, and a setup wizard that helps users quickly create documents from scratch or by relying on other business systems.
  7. Detailed reporting and auditing. Both in regulated and non-regulated industries, there is a growing need to track and store changes for auditing and transparency. SMASHDOCs meets this demand through its patented “history per paragraph” feature.

5  Typical Use-Cases

5.1  Today’s sweetspot

Today, SMASHDOCs technology fits best in environments that have demanding collaborative document needs as a result of a high number of edits, stringent tracking and auditing requirements, or the involvement of a large number of collaborators. Typical applications here include publishing (book, manuals, handbooks, technical blueprints, scientific publications, professional reports, and more), as well as B2B documents such as legal and capital market trading contracts, insurance products, company policies, regulatory submissions, public sector policy documents, sales proposals, and more. Additional use-cases include business documents, marketing communications, or the creation and review of content that goes into system-generated communications. 

FIGURE 4: SMASHDOCS’ POSITIONING

5.2  Future markets

SMASHDOCs’ technology has been developed to be horizontal in nature, meaning that it can easily support a wide variety of use-cases and industries. From a go-to-market perspective, SMASHDOCs has developed industry-specific propositions for legal, (corporate) publishing, public sector, and agreement projects. In the future, we expect to see SMASHDOCs develop additional vertical industry propositions for industries such as education (student thesis publishing), research facilities (creation of grant applications), the pharmaceutical industry (“medical writing”), financial printing (securities prospectuses), financial services (financial and annual reporting), insurance (policy development or underwriting documents), automotive (instruction manuals), and more.

6  How SMASHDOCs Compares to Alternatives in the Market

We have not come across another company in this market leveraging database-driven content and user-based access permissions at a higher level of user-friendliness than what SMASHDOCs currently has on offer. Word processing vendors or other players offering collaborative authoring software often offer strong co-authoring but are weak on version control, or they may excel at file sharing but offer subpar collaboration. If they do both well, they tend to be part of a highly specialized industry solution which severely limits their application and its usefulnes outside that one vertical. As we noted in a previous section, SMASHDOCs’ technology is horizontal in nature, so it can be used across many different markets and can even be integrated with industry-specific solutions when required.

SMASHDOCs’ key competitors include: 
  1. Traditional word processing solutions such as Microsoft Word and Google Docs that offer collaboration and light review capabilities. Traditional word processors quickly run into limitations when more robust review, approval, or guided interview capabilities are required or when audit trails need to be created to ensure regulatory compliance. 
    • New start-ups have emerged in the cloud-based productivity and workspace market to challenge Microsoft and Google Docs. Players such as Quip (acquired by Salesforce), Notejoy, Slite, and others are starting to redefine the way office workers and sales teams do their jobs. They tend to organize documents into channels, which offer a cohesive writing or editing experience. Nevertheless, like Word and Google Docs, their reconciliation and approval processes are usually less robust than what SMASHDOCs provides, though they do offer a more seamless document management experience or a more integrated approach to spreadsheet and slide presentation software than what Google or the Microsoft 365 Suite can muster.
  2. Content Collaboration Platform (CCP) providers focus on offering collaboration solutions for content across the entire company. Most of them, like Dropbox, Box, Microsoft (Sharepoint or Teams), come from the file sharing space but collaborative workspace providers like Slack are also moving into this space. These group focus on facilitating collaboration of content across an organization by integrating file storage, chat, word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, web meeting capabilities, and more. They offer some document processing, but by comparison, they typically lack the extensive co-authoring, reconciliation, and auditing capabilities that SMASHDOCs offers. Another major drawback is that they store document changes as versions, making it more difficult to manage versions or review content changes when multiple users and versions are involved.
  3. Contract lifecycle management (CLM) software vendors aim to unify all of the parties and versions involved in negotiations into one trusted medium that allows all users to see changes and track the timeline of a contract’s development from inception to signing. There are a vast amount of competitors here, ranging from established CRM2, ERP3 and ECM4 vendors to emerging cloud players. 
    • Traditional, enterprise-class content management providers such as IBM, OpenText, or Hyland offer content services platforms that focus more on the storing and management of contracts than the collaborative nature of the content creation. 
    • Emerging cloud players include those coming from document signing (like Docusign with SpringCM), proposal management such as Conga and Pandadocs, AI/ML based players like Kira Systems, and pure cloud CLM solutions such as Agiloft, Concord, or Onit. In comparison with SMASHDOCs, these emerging players often focus on providing a more integrated production process but lack robust collaboration features. 
  4. Specialized solutions across a range of publishing use-cases. 
    • Professional publishers often rely on home-grown or customized content management solutions that manage the review and approval of manuscripts. These typically lack robustness in annotation and reconciliation in comparison to SMASHDOCs.
    • Enterprises publishing annual reports, financial documents, or even in-house magazines often rely on page layout technology from Adobe (InDesign) or Quark (xPress). Quark, more than Adobe, specializes in enterprise publishing and has built an entire collaborative working environment. In comparison to SMASHDOCs, page layout technology focuses more on the production aspect, particularly concerning optimization of media assets for digital distribution, rather than the collaboration and content approval process.
  5. Customer Communications Management (CCM) vendors. The CCM space deals with the creation, approval, and review of content and templates for system-generated communications. While SMASHDOCs’ technology is used for the production of one-off documents, CCM vendors provide collaborative working capabilities to create content that is used for system output, either for transactional (billing, invoices) or more promotional (marketing) communications. CCM vendors are highly specialized in content and version control, auditing, and approvals, but unlike SMASHDOCs, they are not meant for ad-hoc document creation and they do not support collaborative editing in real-time.
  6. Marketing technology (MarTech) vendors. Any type of marketing system that deals with the generation, storage, and communicative output of marketing assets may have collaborative content creation and reconciliation capabilities that could be seen as an alternative to what SMASHDOCs offers. Marketing Asset Management (MAM) systems, Digital Asset Management (DAM), Content Management Systems (CMS) or Web Content Management (WCM) systems may all have collaborative content development capabilities in various degrees of robustness, although not to the level of SMASHDOCs. In addition, like the CCM space, email automation and marketing campaign systems may rely on the collaborative creation and approval of email, social media, and other digital communications.
  7. AI/ML-technology providers, at least those with a particular focus on industries in which collaborative reporting is important such as finance/risk control or contract lifecycle management, could be viewed as competitors. Businesses such as Workiva, Blackline, Auditboard and the like provide AI-driven audit and compliance reports with remote collaboration for issue remediation and reporting. Contract Lifecycle Management providers such as Kira Systems and others who apply AI/ML in contract management fall in this category as well. Not only does SMASHDOCs offers more robust collaborative authoring capabilities, but the way it structures content through tags and metadata allows for strong machine learning opportunities.

7  Conclusion

In conclusion, SMASHDOCs is a world-class solution, developed with its users’ needs in mind. The interface is very well-designed, and the system offers tremendous benefits in comparison to the way content creation, review, and approval have traditionally been done. SMASHDOCs should be at the top of the list for businesses searching for new solutions to increase the efficiency of their remote teams in the wake of COVID-19.

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  1. Source: Understanding the New Digital Reality, Aspire, July 2020
  2. Customer Relationship Management, such as Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics
  3. Enterprise Resource Planning, such as SAP or Oracle ERP
  4. Enterprise Content Management, or nowadays Content Services platforms such as OpenText, Microsoft or Hyland