We’ve all likely experienced the impact of social collaboration tools like LinkedIn and Facebook in our personal lives, but, chances are, few of us have seen the same kind of impact from collaboration tools in our work lives. Despite the fact that at home we can easily upload content a single time and then share via links, create discussion threads around content, and browse relevant content and conversations along a range of convenient facets, at work most of us are still using the clunky trinity of shared drives, hard drives and email to create, find and share documents.

But that’s changing, and fast. In the not too distant future (18 – 24 months), we’ll be seeing three key shifts in how we collaborate on documents in the enterprise. 

#1: Some documents will no longer be documents at all

The first important shift is that we’ll stop using documents to do those things that are better accomplished with social collaboration tools, whether because the information in these documents has a short useful lifespan or because it would benefit from the fluidity that social collaboration tools provide.

The following figure plots some common corporate documents along these two axes.

 the_ landscape_of_social_document_collaboration_shepley_092010_figure 1.jpg

As we move from lower left to upper right, the likelihood increases that over the next two years these documents will tend to fall out of use and be replaced with other modes of communication, such as microblogging, community spaces, threaded conversations, wikis and so on.

For those documents on the lower left, however, it’s much more likely that they will remain documents…at least for the foreseeable future. Their long lifespan and low degree of fluidity mean that there isn’t much to be gained by using the current generation of social tools to collaborate on them. However, given the breakneck pace of innovation we’re seeing in this space, I imagine tools will emerge in the next few years to enable more social collaboration for these kinds of documents as well.

#2: Some documents will no longer begin their lives as documents

The second important shift is that, for some documents, we’ll create them as other kinds of content (e.g., wikis, conversation threads, blogs) and then migrate them to documents at a certain point in their lifecycle (e.g., major draft versions, final published version).

The following figure expands the scope of the previous one, which plotted only final versions of documents, to include draft versions of some of these same documents.

the_landscape_of_social_document_collaboration_shepley_092010_figure 2.jpg 

As you can see, when we move upstream in the document lifecycle to include drafts, the range of documents that would benefit from social collaboration tools dramatically increases. This is true even though once they reach the point of being published (and therefore migrate back towards the lower left quadrant), they would need to be handled using more traditional document management tools.

(Editor's Note: You might also like: What Wikipedia Can Teach Businesses About Collaborative Authoring)

#3: Some documents will remain documents throughout their lifecycle, but how they get created and shared will change

The third important shift is that, even when we’re doing good old fashioned document management from cradle to grave on a document, we’ll begin creating and sharing that document in new ways.

The following figure shows the typical pattern for how we create and collaborate on documents today.

the_ landscape_of_social_document_collaboration_shepley_092010_figure 3.jpg

In the end there may be dozens (or even hundreds) of versions of the document in different stages of completion existing in email, on shared drives, personal network drives and local hard drives. Both from a productivity as well as a risk perspective, this approach is less than optimal.

What’s on the horizon is something like the following.

the_landscape_of_social_document_collaboration_shepley_092010_figure 4.jpg

What you’ll notice immediately is that there’s only one final work product and one master draft (which contains the entire history of the document creation process) generated by this social approach to document collaboration. This can lead to substantial productivity gains and a significant decrease in overall enterprise risk.

And some of you may also notice that this is not exactly a futuristic set of capabilities -- it’s currently widely available through collaboration tools such as Google Docs (pictured in this example), Jive or SharePoint as well as through traditional “big” ECM platforms such as IBM FileNet, EMC Documentum, or Open Text.

Therefore what’s “on the horizon” in this case is not the technology itself, but the widespread adoption of it: despite the ubiquity of tools that support more social document collaboration scenarios, poor adoption rates and underutilization of these tools abound in corporate America.

The final word

Although there are likely to be other important shifts introduced by the adoption of social document collaboration (especially in the very nature and structure of documentation itself), these will take much longer to manifest themselves in how most of us work on documents day-to-day. The three shifts we’ve examined here, in contrast, will almost certainly become a reality for us in the course of the next two years -- and this is good news for our personal productivity, as well as for the productivity and risk profiles of the organizations we work for.

(Editor's Note: Also read: 3 Ways Documents are Related to Enterprise Collaboration)