Document Collaboration Best Practices

Working in teams with members spread out across various time zones around the world can be a challenge. Even when your team is located in the same building, sharing and collaborating on documents and content can be tricky if you aren’t using the right tools.

All too often, I see people working on the same document and shipping it around via email, and before long, you have multiple conflicting versions made in parallel by several people. Yes, it may seem like creating a document and sending it to a few team members over email is the easiest solution, but it can quickly become a nightmare of merged edits and too many versions, all going in different directions.

Here are a few document collaboration tips and best practices  to reduce the pain and make you more efficient.

Pick a Tool

  1. Figure out if you already have an appropriate tool you can use. Your IT department or another team member might already have a document collaboration tool, so start by trying what you have to see if it meets your needs.
  2. Wikis are a great solution if you have a large team and want to develop content that anyone can edit, or if you want to share the content with a large audience. They are also a good solution if you will have a large number of pages with related content and many links between documents. You can install a wiki internally behind your company firewall if you need additional security or you can open it up to the world, depending on your needs.
  3. Google Docs (s goog) works really well for sharing a few documents with a small team, and it is one of the best ways to collaborate on spreadsheets, presentations and other documents where the end product is a standalone document in a specific format.

For all of my current projects, I use wikis and Google Docs; it’s likely that one of these solutions will also work for you. If not, there are plenty of other choices depending on your specific needs, ranging from simple text editor applications with local network sharing to high-end collaboration suites for large enterprise businesses and everything in between.

Have the Right Mindset

You need to go into the document collaboration process knowing that other people will change “your” work. As a result, you want to think about the document as a team effort and not something that you own. The vast majority of the time, the additions from team members will make the output better, so be careful to look at changes for improvements and not get defensive about other people changing or rewording your earlier draft. Occasionally, someone (maybe even you) will make a change that takes the document in the wrong direction. Often these undesirable changes are based on some misunderstanding of the purpose or the audience for the final product. Hopefully, you’ve picked a tool — like a wiki or Google Docs — where you can view and restore previous versions. It’s a good idea to get in touch with the person whose changes are reverted or add a comment on a discussion page to explain why, and to investigate whether some of it can be reincorporated.

Release Early and Often

Too many people want to get their document as close to perfect as possible before they share it with anyone else, but that really isn’t the best way to collaborate. Would you try to cook a perfect dinner for someone without finding out when they were arriving or asking if they have any dietary restrictions? Probably not. You would at least have a conversation with them to better understand their needs. The first version of your document can be that initial conversation where you find out if your plans are on the right track. You can start with a disclaimer at the top of the document stating exactly where you are in the process to help people understand that it’s just a list of ideas or an outline for what will eventually be the finished document. This gives people time to tell you whether you are going in the right direction or are way off in left field before you have invested too much time in it. You can even assign sections to different people to work on or get suggestions that you might not have come up with on your own. By putting the content out there early and making frequent changes, you can get team members involved and collaborating early.

Format Later

Don’t get too caught up in formatting and making the document beautiful early in the process. Especially when you are collaborating with other people, worry about getting the content right first, and then figure out how you can best display it with the right headings, formatting and image later. This also gives you the flexibility to transfer the final version of the content into another tool with more robust formatting features to create nicely-designed PDF (s adbe) files or other formatted documents.

What are your favorite collaboration tips for working on documents with other people?

Photo by Flickr user Sean MacEntee used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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