Collaborative documents

At the end of last week I had an interesting insight into how online, collaborative documents might change the way people in different organisations work together.
I had a small software development requirement and needed to quickly get a quote from a prospective supplier. I had briefed our account manager, and he arranged for a technical consultant James to phone me. In advance of the call, I quickly knocked out a specification document, and shared it in
Google Docs with James. I still had the document open on screen, and within a few minutes of having given him access, could see that James was viewing the document. A few minutes later, and because I had given him the rights to share the document on to others, I could see that a further two people at the supplier were viewing the document.
That small piece of information is a significant difference from what has come before and the world of file attachments. You send, and then can get no further feedback. As I increasingly point out to people these days, probably not even a bounce back if you've mis-addressed the message, and the reason why there's no read receipt in Gmail is because it never meant anyone had actually “read” anything.
In this new world, the document became the focus of our collaboration. James' team made comments on the document (which I could watch them do) and when we caught up on the phone it turned into just an extension of our document-based conversation.
For many, many years I have heard how documents should be 'living' objects, but have rarely seen it happen. Often, it's because the technology has limited people to think in terms of old world published (and therefore static) analogies. However, it's also fair to say that much of business convention is tied to those analogies (how, or more importantly, when, do you “sign-off” a multi-authored collaborative document, for example?).
In that old world, documents weren't ever anything but abstracts of the world around them – minutes, for example, aren't what happened in a meeting, but what was agreed that happened. Those types of documents are very different from those that can be generated in services like Google Docs (or, for that matter, using technologies like Wikis). It's this sort of subtle yet profound change that makes for interesting times ahead.

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