Collaborative Digital Documents: From Creation to Consumption

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Paper books are, by nature, static things and so, for the most part, are digital versions of these books. The Oxford English Dictionary reinforces this notion. It defines an ebook as "an electronic version of a printed book," suggesting that these ebooks are little more than replicas of their digital counterparts. When you hear the term "ebook," you probably think of the iPad, Kindle, or perhaps PDF documents. You may think of a static file that is just like a printed book except that you need some kind of digital reading device. That is about to change, as digital documents in general, are being swept up in the collaborative behaviors of social media.

From the early days of the personal computer, some titles showed they could go beyond the boundaries set by traditional text. My first personal computer, in the early 1980s, was a Radio Shack TRS-80. Despite its incredibly constrained hardware, it provided one of my favorite games, in a genre then referred to as interactive fiction. The story line I remember was about a mutiny on an 18th-century sailing ship. You read a page or two on screen, then you had to answer a question such as, "Now that you've caught the mutineer, what will you do with him?" Depending on your choices here and throughout the book, the story ended differently. You might have died an early death; you might have lived into old age to be admired as a hero. The document was interactive, but collaboration was not possible. There was no web, much less the rich social media we take for granted today.

Until recently, reviewing and sharing thoughts about a document was possible but very difficult. It didn't matter whether the file was complex, such as a technical manual, or simple, such as an elevator speech. If you have ever had to collaborate on a Microsoft Word document, you most likely turned Track Changes on and emailed it out for comments. Five reviewers would get you five sets of tracked changes. You had to reconcile each set into a new draft. Rinse then repeat many times.

Collaboration got better, and cheaper, thanks to Google. Any Google Docs user can allow others to collaborate simultaneously on the same document from any computer with web access. Microsoft offers a similar service via its office web apps on SkyDrive.

If you have a Kindle e-reader -- either the physical device or the software on another mobile device -- you probably know that you can annotate key passages of an ebook for sharing with others. With the actual Kindle e-reader, you even can share those key passages with friends and family using the device's built-in integration with Twitter and Facebook. For in-context sharing, you can use "Public Notes" to connect with fellow readers by seeing what passages they found meaningful in books you are both reading.

Traction Software, Inc. is taking document-based collaboration a giant step further. I spoke with Jordan Frank, a VP at Traction, who demonstrated Traction's TeamPage to me recently. At the risk of oversimplifying, TeamPage is like a wiki on steroids. It lets team members collaborate on documents, while respecting their assigned rights if the document is in a managed content repository. Team members can tag sections of documents and make comments. Anyone with sufficient rights can query and view activity by comments, team member, action item, or free-form keywords. Teams can slice and dice information about documents and perform sophisticated searches.

Frank believes this extracts even more value from documents, "enhancing collective knowledge by orders of magnitude." Important at the corporate level, tags are also associated with documents. Thus the documents themselves remain unchanged, which is critical if these documents have become officially declared records.

Finally, Ray Schwemmer and Rick Havrilla recently published Dynamic Collaboration, which looks at social media inside the corporate firewall. I asked Schwemmer about the social potential of collaboration via documents. He replied, "In the end ebooks and social commenting will become another medium for people to share their knowledge with colleagues to improve corporate processes and products." Digital documents are ready for creative collaboration. Content socialization is here to stay. Before long, we'll probably wonder what a static ebook was.