If ever a topic were complex, it is the evolution of document collaboration. The complexity emanates from the evolution of the document itself. In fact, today when people talk of document management, an initial grounding question should be “define document." Content is perhaps a better word nowadays. Isn’t a web page a document? An email, tweet, instant message, digitized video, image file, mashup of several content sources? Today, when one speaks of a “document,” the possibilities are limitless.

Now compound that with the fact that, while the boundaries of the media that define our documents have expanded, so too have the abilities to collaborate around a document. Document collaboration can occur in many different scenarios:

  • content-to-content
  • content-to-device/application
  • content-to-community/people scenario

All are possible, and each is experiencing significant evolution and opportunity.  These are not mutually exclusive, however, adding to the complexity of document collaboration, as well as the potential capabilities. For example, multiple authors could collaborate on one body of content, in an application-specific setting that results in automated content recombinations.

Before I explain these scenarios and capabilities any further, one more dimension of the document must also be appreciated. It was some 15 years ago when I first introduced the fact that "document" was no longer just a noun in the business setting, but also a verb. Capabilities encompassed in workflow and content management systems provide audit trails that track, or “document” the lifecycle of the document itself. Thus the document became a source of corporate DNA -- providing a lasting timeline of evidence on the who, what, when, and, in some cases, why content evolved the way it did. 

This rudimentary initial impetus of the boundless document also acting as "documenter" proved to be a fertile ground for growing collaborative capabilities.

With this litany of capability in mind, we can now further investigate the degree of collaboration that can occur in each possible scenario:

  • document-to-device/application
  • document-to-document
  • document-to-community

Document-to-Device/Application Collaboration

Device/application is a fascinating, rich with potential aspect of document management that I have written and talked about many times before. The document as a digital resource can collaborate with specific device types (e.g., iPads) and GPS systems, to be aware of where a content consumer is located, how they are consuming the content and preferences for consuming content (i.e. user profiles).

By leveraging standards such as HTML and DITA, the document “publishes” itself in a highly user/situation-sensitive, personalized and fine-tuned manner. Thus, more effective communication occurs through the collaborative document.

Document-to-Document Collaboration

Today’s document can also collaborate with other documents, particularly through integration with search tools and mashup functionality. Search tools bring together disparate document resources through some common thread -- defined perhaps by the content seeker, and enhanced through text and usage analytics. Thus, documents are no longer individual resources, but dynamic self-creating libraries, shaped around user-defined foci.

But perhaps more revolutionary is the ability for document content to be repurposed and combined with other content sources, delivering dynamic virtual “documents.” Through mashup functionality, (i.e., ATOM, REST, RSS, EMML and other standards) documents and sub-documents are repurposed -- merged to provide a higher level of insight at the intersection of two or more focal points. Now, appreciate the power and reach of this functionality when combined with the document-to-device/application collaboration capabilities described above.

Document-to-Community Collaboration

Lastly, document collaboration occurs at the intersection of people and content, both as a way to develop content and as a way to build and/or support user communities. Collaborative authorship is a fundamental aspect of document collaboration. From the inception, document management tools provided check-in/out and revision control to facilitate the multi-author/editor work environment. This grew to include version control (major releases locked while minor releases undergo version control) and format synchronization (proactive management of the publishing of a document into multiple formats, e.g., Word and PDF.)

The advent of wikis provided a way for multiple authors to collaborate in a more dynamic, single publishing model. Wikipedia continues to shine as a beacon to the powers of collaborative authoring. But the management and facilitation of the multi-author/editor environment continues to evolve. It is now possible to support multiple authors in the same document at the same time, using tools such as Google Docs and Central Desktop.

When integrated with search technology and user profiling, documents can become personal publishing agents. As documents are created and edited, they seek out interested users, and push their content to the user in real time. Additionally, personal search histories and personal profiles can be leveraged as a way to identify and link like-minded individuals, which can serve as the impetus of a community of interest, positioning document collaboration as a way of supporting social network analysis (SNA) as well.


The document has evolved dramatically over time, from static, passive and ignorant publications to dynamic, personalized and intelligent entities. Today’s documents embody collaboration throughout their lifecycle, in multiple ways: As dynamic personalized publishers, documenters of process and as magnets for communities and facilitators of group-based creation and discussion. Documents enable collaboration across media and situations, time and space, applications and disciplines. From books and newspapers to coupons and name badges, the concept of "document" is being challenged, and in each case, new, powerful collaborative capabilities are evolving.

Editor's Note: Other articles on Enterprise Collaboration include: