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Online Collaboration: Google Wave Has Created A Storm, But What Is Online Collaboration?

on 5 October 2009


Posted by Wayne Pope

Online collaboration has become one of the hottest topics on the web right now. The arrival of Google Wave means that this trend will probably continue for the foreseeable future as well. But why has it become so popular?

In truth collaboration has always existed, however it was typically a word which was the preserve for music artists worldwide. Organizations have always collaborated with each other whether in a supplier/customer relationship or as a general partnership and it has enabled them to get further than they would have done on their own.

In the last 10-15 years, email has made collaboration much easier. No longer did you have to be in the same physical proximity to the people you wanted to work with. No longer did you have to wait for that fax, phone call or contract to arrive. It's true that some things still require the physical touch but those days may be beginning to fade with each heartbeat. It's true, personal contact will never truly vanish, after all replacing a handshake or doing business in the same room has no real alternative, but doing business with those you may never meet is just as important for businesses of today and the future.

Many organizations have also been using document management systems through the years which enable better management of files, documents, document sharing and also storage/backup. Traditionally these were hosted on servers local to the business, but became central to many business continuity plans as the internet took hold and made documents available from any location within the network.

Over time these document management systems have also become intranets, offering places for staff to pick up the latest information and announcements from communication channels other than the more traditional memo or email. However, this still wasn't true collaboration. Collaboration requires input from both parties and this was still a very top down focus.

Roll forward a few years and the advent of online collaboration technologies has led to a different style of collaboration, one which opens up to a wiki approach where contributions are welcomed and encouraged from all parties. Organizations such as Twitter, Facebook and Skype have shrunk the world yet further, and when you consider just how small the world is through LinkedIn, you really see how close everyone is.

In fact with these online collaboration technologies document management systems are now available for organizations to share documents securely with third parties - including suppliers, customers and partners, something which was traditionally the domain of email (and documents attached to emails). Extending this further and allowing access to workspaces has now enabled organizations to overcome the traditional problems of sending documents via emails including:

  • Version control: When an email is sent, a document can be modified within moments, making each of the other versions instantly out of date. Managing such input has always been difficult. Companies exist which enhance track changes (such as Workshare) and enable documents to have modifications, comments and allow simple uploading. But it still relies on email and a third party system. Online version control in workspaces allows the document to be commented upon, follow previous versions and make sure that anybody not involved in the collaboration only ever sees the latest version. Perfect for training documents, contracts and presentations.
  • File size: We've all encountered issues with size at some point in our lives. Typically emails cannot be over a certain size, inboxes can only contain so many MBs and sending to multiple people can really fill email servers quickly. The normal response is to buy more storage. But very soon, this approach leads to more management problems. By not sharing documents, but sharing links to documents all of the above issues are solved, meaning there is no limit to the file size which can be shared. Perfect for videos, images, large documents or presentations - in fact anything which may be media heavy.
  • Commenting: Often people comment in very long email chains, the comments get superseded yet may never lose their value (however may get lost). Commenting is crucial to any collaboration, making sure that your voice is heard when it needs to be. Also, if for some reason you never receive the email or are absent; tracking that back and making a suitable comment can be very difficult. The online collaboration tools allow for commenting in a single place on a single document and also on the latest version. Nothing needs to get missed, ensuring everybody is able to collaborate. Perfect for large, disparate teams where having a physical meeting just cannot happen.

It's a fair assumption to say that collaboration will be around long after you or I, it's been here forever and it will remain forever too but how we collaborate changes. Possibly in the future Google Wave will do away with email altogether. However, they said that CDs would replace vinyl, and it never got rid of it altogether. As a collaborator myself and as someone who loves the way that online collaboration makes working with people anywhere in the world, I have to say that the boundaries to working together are a lot less than a few years ago, and who knows, in the future collaborating may just be second nature to everybody.

Considering implementing enterprise collaboration software in your organisation? Before you dive in, get the rundown from these industry experts.


About this author: Wayne Pope

Technical Director at Glasscubes. With over 30 years experience in the online software industry, Wayne brings an in depth technical expertise in collaborative tools, technology, and best practices.