Introduced as VisiCalc by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, the spreadsheet turned 30 earlier this year and continues to be one of the key lubricants in the knowledge economy.
For knowledge workers who are adept at their use, spreadsheets are a powerful tool for organizing, sorting, and calculating a wide variety of information. However, two elements that are necessary to successful knowledge work are missing, namely context and connectivity. Spreadsheets often exist in isolation and must be manually updated as new information (often from other spreadsheets) becomes available. This gap results in a loss of time, degradation of the quality of the information as it becomes stale, and a loss of context because the path that the information took is severed.
As we have seen with the utility and popularity of social tools such as wikis and blogs, adding context and creating dynamic links between content is extremely beneficial to knowledge work. The social element of those tools allows for users to explore supplemental information surrounding a piece of content, as well as have changes reflected quickly and in a traceable manner.
Socialtext is bringing these dynamics to bear on the ubiquitous spreadsheet with SocialCalc, its distributed spreadsheet offering. Developed by a team led by Dan Bricklin, SocialCalc is integrated into Socialtext’s collaboration platform, so all the features of the platforms, such as profiles, wikis, blogs, and microblogs, are present. Users set up spreadsheets that are dynamically linked to other sheets so that, when information is updated in one, it updates all sheets it is linked to. For example, a sales agent keeping records in a spreadsheet need not e-mail information to a manager; instead, the data will be dynamically updated in the manager’s sheet as the sales agent enters changes. This reduces time, friction, and a number of unnecessary e-mail exchanges.
Spreadsheets created in SocialCalc are publishable to Socialtext workspaces, where complete audit trails of who has done what are recorded. This is invaluable, as changes made to an e-mailed attachment are often lost. Additionally, the access controls from the workspace are applied to the spreadsheet, ensuring that only those with access to that particular workspace can see the sheet, even if sheets from various workspaces are linked together.
The spreadsheet was the original killer app and helped propel us into the information age. Today, social software is the latest in the information age’s arsenal of tools and the concept of adding context to spreadsheets via such tools holds the potential to allow knowledge workers to focus less on the tools and more on the information they contain.
Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.