I have been writing about the challenges of online collaboration for years (here is a piece I wrote about synchronizing online calendars for the NY Times back in 2009). When it comes to working on the same document (or spreadsheet or slide deck), it sadly still isn’t easy. Sure, there are tons of tools, including cloud storage vendors (like Dropbox, Google Workspace and Microsoft’s basketful of deplorable apps), team messaging apps (like Slack and Teams), and various other SaaS apps that claim to be collaboration forward but are still back in the dark ages.
What is wrong? All of this technology comes down to a bad marriage between the personal and sharing mindsets. And while the tools supposedly get more sophisticated, they still have fundamental and foundational issues, like these:
Our first problem is the personal computer is inherently personal. Back in the 1980s when we each had a huge 4 MHz CPU sitting on our desktops, we could run whatever apps we wished out of a tiny floppy disk. We didn’t share nothing with nobody. There was no internet, no SaaS stuff, no web browser. There weren’t even any graphic interfaces. Life was simple, and it was good, or so we thought. But now we have all this power: multiple CPU/GPU cores to run all sorts of complex stuff, gigabit speeds coursing through our home offices. But we still tend to think about the document that is sitting on our screen as our own proprietary property.
This background hasn’t made sharing easy. For a project that I am working on for a client, they set me up on their internal email system because they were using GDocs/Workspace. If you aren’t part of the domain, GDocs goes through some trouble and getting you in synch is painful. Much easier to just create a new email on their domain and share that way. Something is wrong with this picture.
Microsoft isn’t much better. They have almost as many varieties of sharing tech as Heinz has ingredients in their condiments. You have a Sharepoint drive, which isn’t the same thing as the Teams shared drive which differs from One Drive which isn’t the same One Drive on the E6 Enterprise license of Office 365, and oh by the way login.microsoft.com presents a different dialog from all of the above and is needed to manage all your various identities and sharing permissions.
Underlying all this tech are two basic ways to share stuff: either by URL (or by email, which embeds a URL in the message body), or by working with user identities, which also makes use of email addresses. Sometimes one method works better than the other. The ideal collaboration tool allows for setting basic access rights (view or edit your content), and sometimes these work, sometimes these are assigned to someone’s personal Gmail address when it should have been assigned to the common work domain address. Maybe this was an issue back in 2009, but it is still an issue today.
The sharing routines are broken because you have multiple paths and devices and apps to get you to your content. You can use a desktop or mobile app, a cloud app, a plain-Jane browser session. If you don’t have a desktop license to the word processor or presentation app, you have to bring up the browser and hope that you can run the app inside your browser — for those corporate-managed Windows machines that are under app lockdown, you might have to go through some hoops to get the right collection of permissions.
Plus doing this in near-real-time can be an issue if you are spread across a bunch of time zones around the planet and keeping track of what was done on a previous edit. This happened to me recently as one of my editors is in Europe while another is in California.
Sometimes I just give up and email someone the Word doc we are working on and just call it a day. That is absolutely the worst way to collaborate, bouncing bits back and forth across the internet. I hope it doesn’t take another decade to fix the collaboration problem.