Online collaboration still ain’t easy

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)., and here is a link to my review of personal cloud storage that I recently did for CNN) 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.

Document Collaboration Tools - Document Management System FolderitWhat 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 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.

5 thoughts on “Online collaboration still ain’t easy

  1. I’m sorry, why is sharing MS Word docs via email the worst way to collaborate? Over the years I have been victimized by many clients’ collaborative workflow platforms, and never, ever, has their benefits outweighed the additional wasted management cycles required to use them. Yes, I mean compared with emailing an MS Word doc and manually managing version control. (We never throw anything out.)

    The only use for shared Google docs (sheets, actually) we’ve ever found is the client-work trackers that our managing editor teams share and update continuously as work progresses. Actual deliverables cannot be produced by more than one mind at a time, so when multiple minds are required (as they always are), we do it serially.

  2. David, there are no great minds at work trying to solve the collaboration problem, and way too many pieces of software are siloed off somewhere in the middle of a mega-corporation. It seems like there needs to be more collaboration to develop software that collaborates well, doesn’t it?

  3. It’s a sadly hilarious situation.
    And, as you say, it hasn’t gotten much better.
    I’ve collaborated across time zones and with varied teams for over three decades. To do this well takes a different mindset than the first one you mention – that a personal computer is personal. Motivational posters inspire us with “teamwork makes the dream work!”.
    However, mastering collaboration will be a massive differentiator for many employees. As enterprises, smaller companies, governments, and teams bite the enticing collaboration hook and adopt Teams/Slack and cloud “solutions” ad nauseam, some of their employees will be left behind. (Or will just flee elsewhere in disgust).
    Some pundits have dubbed “the great resignation” as the name for employees balking at returning to the workplace. As many hybridized workers seem likely to bolt out of frustration with the fractured state of collaboration environments.

  4. It is bonkers, and emailing stuff around always causes version issues. I think Google Docs is quite good… if everyone is on Google. However the problem with most cloud solutions is you then end up with information silos and multiple copies of documents.

    At safedrop we’re working on this, we have a google docs like web editor, works on anything, no signup/account required. Docs have a mandatory maximum validity time, after which they’re archived for return to your DMS of choice. All docs in office format. We do however require a document owner, maybe that’s a hangup from the PC model !
    Get in touch if you’d like to have a play – or @angusbradley

  5. The words shared here stuck a chord with me. I too have struggled with how to best collaborate, managed document version control, and be confident everyone knows where the latest version is for each project. I think there is yet another factor that is further complicating matters that David didn’t mention … with so many shared workspaces, it is now impossible to know where the latest version of a file is stored. We have taken a step back with all the online platforms now offered. However, the problem shouldn’t be placed just with the software vendors. Given we humans like to do things our own way and resist change whenever possible, every time a new application comes along, there will always be someone who doesn’t want to comply, triggering a new round of confusion and block to the “utopia” of a single ecosystem where documents can all be shared, changes tracked, and data integrity can coexist!

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