It almost goes without saying these days that when there’s collaborative authoring and editing work to be done, email is the channel that supports the process. We have become so accustomed to emailing documents around, that we have become generally inured to just how hideous the process can be.
Let’s take a hypothetical example – say, five people collaborating on an document. This document could be something like a grant submission, a school project or a press release.
What usually happens is that one of the collaborators creates the first draft. Let’s use the simplest case, where there is one primary author, and the other four participate as reviewers of the document. Of course, it can get more complex than this when the authoring responsibility is shared among collaborators.
The author begins the process by creating the first draft, then sending it as an email attachment to the four reviewers. In executing this very common task, she will create four new copies of the document so that, adding her original document, the tally starts like this:
Among the four reviewers, the document may be treated differently. It’s plausible that the usages would break down this way:
- The first reviewer was savvy enough to add comments directly to the document, using Word’s comment capability.
- The second collaborator decided to just write her feedback directly into the document, but used a different color typeface to distinguish her changes from the original content.
- The third reviewer didn’t change the document at all, but added comments in the text of an email.
- The final reviewer printed out the document and wrote comments by hand on the paper, and then sent the printed document back to the author by mail.
As the marked up documents make their way back to the author, the tally looks like this:
The original author now needs to integrate the various forms of feedback into the next version of the document. Fortunately, some of the changes will be trivial (”I just fixed up a few grammatical issues”), though each attachment will still have to opened up. Realistically, some of the suggested changes will be more fundamental, requiring re-structuring the document, or changing focus.
Just managing the versions is a challenge, and it will grow geometrically with each new round. The fact is that for each round of revisions for this small group, there will be nine new document instances. Meaning that if the document goes through four rounds of revisions, with nine instances each round, then there could be littering up the collaborators’ inboxes, the following grand total:
Following this approach, if you happened to have 10 reviewers who go through 6 rounds of revisions, you could end up with an even bigger mess:
The implication for the author’s Inbox is daunting. The author must rummage through dozens of emails, each with an attachment, trying to determine which is the most recent version.
No wonder collaboration is so difficult and time-consuming!
There is a Better Way
If the hypothetical collaborators had done their work in Buzzword, the experience would have been very different. For starters, the document can be shared with collaborators without emailing anything. The author just invites her collaborators to share the document and from that time forward, there’s always only one instance of the document.
In the case with ten reviewers over 6 rounds of revision, you end up with this equation:
If the emailed version, as mentioned above, could result in a 126 instances of the document in Word, you could make the case that Buzzword is up to 126 times easier to use.
To handle the changes, Buzzword has a nice versioning capability, so as the document goes through its revisions, older versions are preserved if needed.
Further expediting and clarifying the reviewing process is the fact that all reviewers can see everyone else’s comments. This can remove much of the burden on the author, as reviewers can reconcile conflicting comments, and learn from others’ perspective without the author’s intervening. It also reduces redundant comments – no need to add a comment that someone else has already provided. The result is that there are actually fewer revisions when collaborating on a Buzzword document.
The time has come when we can start to say, “Remember when we had to email documents back and forth to get them reviewed? What a nightmare that was!”