Documents are a big part of our work lives and rarely do we work on them alone. So document centric collaboration isn't new, but the way in which we do it is changing.
"Social" and "Engagement", two terms closely associated with the Web, are the buzzwords of the day. "Documents" not so much. Indeed, the associations that people have with documents are frequently negative. Documents involve work; they have to be written, distributed, read and managed.
Documents, however, are very important to successful collaboration. Most of us are familiar with one model for document-centric collaboration, but there are others as well, and they are quickly becoming the new norm.
Let's take a look at three different ways that documents can be related to collaboration.
1. Static Collaboration Objects
In this model, which is by far the most familiar, the document is a static object that is shared with others as part of a formal or ad hoc business process. Email has been (and, sadly, continues to be) the primary means of sharing static documents used as collaboration objects. (Editor's Note: read The Long Hill for Enterprise Collaboration)
Web 1.0 collaboration tools gave us team spaces like Lotus QuickPlace and EMC Document eRooms, in which we could share documents with others. Web 2.0 services like Box.net and drop.io have moved document storage and sharing to the cloud, as well as some of the collaboration around the document (reviewing and commenting, approving for publication, electronic signing, etc.)
While each of these evolutionary steps has been an improvement in the way that we share and use documents, the document itself has remained a static object that is collaborated around, not within.
Editor's Note: You may also be interested in reading: Knowledge Management - Where Does the Enterprise CMS Fit In ?
2. Collaborative Authoring Environments
This was the first model that enabled collaboration within the document itself. There are many variations on the model, including wikis, online editors and format-specific tools.
It's safe to say that most of us are familiar enough with wikis that an explanation is not necessary here. Socialtext's SocialCalc is an interesting parallel, in that it applies wiki editing and sharing principles to the spreadsheet.
Online document editors provide functionality that lets people simultaneously write, edit and comment on a document, as well as collaborate around it. Many are familiar with Google Docs, and Zoho. More recently, Microsoft has enabled collaborative authoring capabilities directly in Office 2010.
Format-specific collaborative authoring tools are similar, but enable individuals to co-author documents in a specific file format. The clearest and most used example is the XML editors from vendors such as Altova, Ephox, and PTC ArborText.
Another example of format-specific tools is those used to create SCORM-compliant content used in eLearning systems. Example SCORM content authoring tools that enable multiple contributors working simultaneously include Adobe Captivate and TechSmith Camtasia Relay.
3. Collaborative Documents
Collaborative Documents is a visionary collaborative content model that is just now beginning to be realized. This model extends the Collaborative Authoring Environment's base premise -- that people should be able to simultaneously create and publish documents -- to the entire collaboration experience.
That is, the document is the place where collaboration and problem solving, not just content authoring, occurs. In this model, the document is the collaboration platform, not just an object around which collaboration happens, or a vessel in which people co-create publications.
Perhaps the clearest, productized articulation of this vision that I have seen is the Portfolios component of Adobe Acrobat. Portfolios, which were first introduced in Acrobat 9, in 2008, enable content creators to bring together multiple related files into a single space without altering them, and then share that bundle with others. Think of a Portfolio as a ZIP file in which the relationship between the individual files in the container is defined and sequenced, as are the slides in a presentation.
Now, imagine the ability to add interactive elements to a Portfolio. For example, after presenting some static information, the Portfolio author could include a survey form to gather the viewers' opinions, or even launch a collaboration space in which viewers could interact in realtime or asynchronously. Adobe is promising to add this type of interactivity in the next release of Acrobat, later this year.
It's time to stop thinking of documents as static objects around which collaboration occurs and, instead, view them as places and channels in which people work together. The document is becoming a parallel collaboration channel to the Web, a channel in which people not only create and consume ideas, but also interact around them, creating innovation and value.