2014-19-September-Pinky-Promise.jpgWhen I was at Microsoft in the late ‘90s, we had file servers -- machines dedicated to storing and sharing huge numbers of files. If you needed to access a recent presentation or wanted to share a product spec with another employee, there was a centralized repository in which you could find important documents.

Then came file sharing. Regardless of novel approaches, file sharing had a common problem with file servers: it put the responsibility on people to choose how to share and where to publish information.

Benefits and Drawbacks

Despite the benefits, uploading individual files to a centralized repository for sharing is difficult. Too much effort is involved and too many decisions are required. Where should employees place a file in the corporate intranet? Who has access? Who doesn’t? How do you tell people where the file is? What about updates and versioning? 

The other major obstacle with traditional file sharing is information architecture -- which attempts to codify how data is organized. While file shares were simple hierarchical folders, enterprise social platforms created a plethora of options, including folders, tags, groups, containers and more. The problem is that some people are wired to think hierarchically (folders), while others want to be more descriptive (tags).

These myriad options led to the most common issue I hear: “I don’t know where to put the file I want to share.”

In the past several years, a number of consumer services for file sharing have emerged to solve the problem in new ways. These consumer services make sharing less of a problem. You can choose to share your desktop files or folders simply by adding people to an approved list, as opposed to uploading copies somewhere. You also benefit by using the information architecture that works best for you, and it’s largely invisible to people with whom you share.

Yet despite the success of these new file-sharing services, email is still the number one way by which people share files. Standalone file sync and share services cannot compete with email, as they present the following challenges for businesses:

Data silos

Many of these file-sharing services are easy to set up and use. Teams can quickly create accounts and begin sharing files. This sounds like a positive, and it can be for small groups. However, new silos are generated within the organization -- defeating centralized data’s purpose. There are many success stories where this is done right such as the work that the US Department of Defense All Partners Access Network has done.

Privacy and security

It’s one thing to put your family photos and documents in a consumer-grade, file-sharing service, but placing business documents and assets in a “free” service is a risky proposition at best. If recent news is any indication, world governments are exercising sovereignty over data, and governments have shown their ability to obtain and control certain data. In some nations, as your data crosses country borders, the government maintains the right to collect it. More recent examples over the concerns of consumer-grade services include Apple’s iCloud leak of private celebrity images.

Loss of corporate control

As corporate data flows to the cloud, outside traditional business perimeters, the IT team loses control of corporate assets -- to the detriment of compliance. The organization doesn’t have authority over the data silos. It loses control to access the rights and permissions of the data, and in turn, it loses control over corporate governance of privacy and security.


Beyond the consumer services challenges listed above, most business data is stored in two places: within email systems and locally on computers.

Moving Into the Consumer Led World

I recently spoke with a senior consultant working with a large, US-based media company. The company stores all of its assets in a well-known consumer service and wants an alternative. It doesn’t want to store the data in a US-based public cloud for fear of information disclosure due to a potential subpoena to the cloud provider. Additionally, this media company is not comfortable with the security of consumer-grade, cloud storage. Unfortunately, that leaves the company with few other options.

An interesting aside here is that when a cloud provider is subpoenaed, it cannot disclose the fact that it received a request. Some forward thinking providers are beginning to implement a solution that constantly reports to their customers that they have not had a government data request, and ceases to report when a request is made.

For enterprise file sync and share, this represents a great opportunity. For businesses and organizations, the use of standalone file sync and share services will follow the same path as social tools -- file sync and share must be an integrated part of the work stream instead of a standalone service. This means integration into email and other collaboration work streams, the addition of fine-grain permission and access controls, easily managed privacy and data ownership controls, and delivery through a variety of formats.

Enterprise file sync and share technologies are important capabilities businesses need to offer their employees. However, they should be cognizant of data silos, risks with consumer-grade services and, most importantly, data privacy and security. That’s why over the next few years, enterprise file sync and share services will become more deeply integrated across common work streams, similar to what we have witnessed in the enterprise social space.

Title image by kennysarmy (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license