IMAGE: Alphaspirit — 123RF

Online collaborative tools: they just work

It’s been a slow start so far, but soon we’re going to see a massive take up of apps like Google Doc or Office 365 that let you create different kinds of online documents, work on them in real time with other people, and store them online. For the moment, there is some awareness of the potential of these apps, but very few people use them with any frequency. And contrary to what happened in the past, the slow take up rate so far has not been to do with entry barriers such as learning time, availability, or cost, but because they reflect a very different way to working than most of us are familiar with so far. In my opinion, working collectively online is about as good as it gets, but as the saying goes, you won’t know until you try it.

Google Docs arrived at IE Business School, where I teach, a few years ago, thanks to a group of pioneering International MBA students. At that time, the school overwhelmingly used Microsoft, and it was students who asked for Google as a way of bringing together dispersed groups of around eight people. I saw the potential immediately, and in fact had been trying out Google Docs — or, previously, the defunct Google Wave — in other areas of my work. It’s simple to use, intuitive, and just requires a bit of trying out to get on top of it.

But it’s taking longer to be adopted than I thought: even today, it tends to be the more forward-thinking groups that use Google Docs, while many people still seem to prefer the convoluted process of attaching documents to emails like we used to do back in the 20th century. In terms of productivity, the improvement from working collectively online is unquestionable: anybody who has spent time working on a document with a group of people in this way, watching how different colored cursors whizz about like worker bees, while at the same time people swap opinions and comments in the chat window, knows that there is no going back to the old ways.

So if it’s such a simple, powerful tool anybody that can use, how come take up has been so slow, I hear you ask? The main reason is that using these collaborative tools requires getting a bunch of people to agree to give them a try. And most of the time that means people who are more comfortable with the old ways, who tend to want to stick to what they know, and that aren’t prepared to give these new approaches time. I would add that we probably need to think about changing our approach, about changing deep-rooted habits, change disciplines and change the way we think about working collectively, which doesn’t mean being in the same room.

There are other differences. Working jointly on a document with a group of people means spending a certain amount of time initially, but generally means that the document is completed. Working collectively online means that somebody opens the document, invites the rest of the group in, and that the document stays open until the last participant has supervised or checked their part. For some reason, the discipline imposed by working in the same room doesn’t materialize when working online. We seem to find it more difficult to find time to work on a document online with colleagues than to go to a meeting to do so.

In practice, it is simply more productive to hold a virtual meeting to discuss changes to a document or spread sheet than sitting around a table in a meeting room, and what’s more, no special training or skills are needed. The reason we don’t make the switch is simply conservatism: the refusal to try a manifestly superior technology simply because we’re set in our ways, and those old ways, well, they still work, and if it ain’t broke, why fix it? All I’m saying is that if you haven’t tried Google Docs or Office 365, or any other document sharing app, try it. You’ll never go back.


(En español, aquí)