Over at The Apple Blog, I was debating what it means to collaborate on a document with some other The Apple Blog fans. In reference to Apple’s iWork.com, a reader remarked:
…the “collaboration” falls a bit short. True collaboration is online editing, something this service lacks.
It’s a common misconception that collaborating on a document can only mean group editing. In fact, as you consider the situations you or I encounter on a daily basis, very few call for group editing of a document:
- Asking your boss to do a quick once-over of an important client proposal — you want high level feedback, not a re-write of paragraph 3.
- Getting feedback from your peers on the design and contents of a product brief — the last thing you want is three people to move the screenshot to three different locations on the page.
- Obtaining the ‘ok’ from engineering that all the technical details in a report are correct — do you really want the engineering manager rewriting your carefully crafted prose?
- Getting feedback from a client on a contract, proposal or other project — like another commenter on The Apple Blog entry mentioned, you don’t want clients editing your work. It’s not easy to explain why you didn’t make their changes. After all they are hiring you because you can do a better job.
Even if the work case is a group of people equally responsible for producing a document, documents produced through “editing by the masses” are often inconsistent in style, tone, or even facts. There is a strong possibility some edits even introduce backward progress, undoing decisions made earlier. Even after the group finishes, a publishable document likely requires a large amount of post-production individual editing. There is huge value and time save in a gatekeeper, passing around each draft for comments or feedback and then making only the changes he or she deems relevant.
Group editing also demands significant time from those providing feedback. If you’ve ever been asked to provide feedback on a child’s report for school, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It doesn’t take much time to suggest a change in paragraph order or point out awkward sentences. The time consuming part is suggesting an example of how a sentence could be more clear or rewriting the introductory paragraph. In short, feedback is quicker than rewriting.
Effective, efficient collaboration is all about speeding up the iterative cycle, making it easy to get input and guidance throughout the development process. Group editing opens up the document to the inefficiencies of consensus, but feedback, using a tool like Backboard, provides the benefits of early-and-often input without the dangers of committee editing.