Marc Solomon has a fun blog post about knowledge work, The Format is the Message in which he says the apocryphal, but not surprsing: "Most knowledge work is reformatting." And he gives a number of examples. I'm sure you can think of many more yourself where hours are lost in tweaking the look - rather than the content - of your latest presentation.
I had a discussion today on a similar topic at the Cambridge OpenCoffee, this time focused on building presentations and always having that feeling that there are similar slides sitting on someone else's computer, if you only knew which presentation had the most recent version or how they structure their network share. Or maybe if you are lucky, they posted them all to the groupware system. Unfortunately, even if you find the slides, you have to rebuild them to fit your format or to include new information, or tweak them a bit to fit the flow of your presentation. This is what Marc is talking about.
I suggest there is something else going on here as well: there is knowledge about these slides and documents and spreadsheets that we don't have, even if the items themselves are easily findable. What was the context under which they were created? What was the purpose of the presentation? What other knowledge did the team have (or not have) when they put that article together?
What is the response? While we can't always get back to the people who created the materials, we should at least try. We should certainly make it as easy as possible for people to raise their hand and ask questions - whether it's "I don't know" or "Does anyone know". Get people talking to each other. Make it easy to find one another. Make it part of the job to ask for assistance and context and background first.
[Photo: "Large Format Photography" by Auzigog]