Revised with new information as of March 8, 2011
How People In Remote Locations
Can Work on the Same Document
(other than using a wiki)
Sharing files and work online takes a very different way of thinking that comes from a commitment to being open in your work, more than it takes any technological expertise. You will be letting other people see and comment on your work, something that only the marketing manager used to have to deal with at a nonprofit organization! This is a new way of working for most people, and it can feel scary. But the potential benefits far out weight the risks.
Sharing information online in a private space where only those you choose to see it may do so (co-workers, staff at partner organizations, clients, etc.) cuts down on email for everyone, prevents anyone from losing a file, and means those of your choosing can view the information from any computer with web access.
In addition, learning how file sharing applications work means you will be training yourself and those you work with to use more advanced, customized systems down the road. It means that, when a technology professional starts talking to you about an advanced sharing system, you will understand more about what he or she means -- and be able to express YOUR wants and needs.
You have probably shared most files this way: you emailed the file to everyone or stored it on a networked/shared file server so others in your office had access to it. Everyone you have shared the file with is supposed to open it, edit it, track their changes, and send it back to you. The downside with this method is that the author can end up with a document full of changes from each different editor (each in a different color), and merging all the changes into one document can be time-consuming and frustrating.
Web-based spaces can provide a much easier way to collaborate on documents and other files. These document-management platforms are accessed through the Internet or a local area network, and are private, for pre-approved users only, usually everyone working in your office or for your company. Everyone can update the file in one location, which greatly simplifies version control, compared to having multiple versions of the file. All revisions are tracked, but the changes might not be shown within the document itself - instead, the changes may be shown in a separate revision history in some of the tools. The functionality also lets editors "check out" and "check in" files to prevent multiple people from making different offline changes at the same time.
Options for web-based spaces include (links go to official web sites):
Even presentations are easy to share, so long as everyone needing to view the presentation has the software necessary to do so (and that doesn't mean everyone has to have Microsoft; a person using an alternative office suite, such as OpenOffice or NeoOffice, will allow everyone to view Microsoft files, and vice-versa). If everyone has the same presentation on their computer, then a conference call is all you need to walk all of these remote people through the presentation and gather their feedback -- and a conference call is still cheaper than specialized collaboration software.
And then there are "wikis online platforms that allow documents to be accessed and edited by various people via the web, and for their edits to be tracked. Wikipedia is a wiki. TechSoup has great information on what a wiki is and why nonprofit organizations should care at all about using such, as well as examples of nonprofit organizations that use wikis to work collaboratively with their immediate communities and remote staff. My personal opinion is that wikis are much too difficult for the majority of users to use; you need a very sophisticated user base to make a wiki work.
But don't get bogged down with the types of tools. Sharing files and work online takes a very different way of thinking for than it takes particular tools. From February 2001 to February 2005, before most of the tools I've named above existed, my work place was a Dell computer/Windows environment; I had no problems using the web interface that my work place provided from my home to view email and files, and I frequently worked on information on my Mac, then easily transferred it and used it on my work computer -- and vice versa. I also worked with people all over the world, and never had a need for specialized software in order to share information with them via the Internet and solicit their feedback. Then for three years, until 2008, I worked with online volunteers developing materials for the Aid Workers Network, and I mentored a young woman in Afghanistan with her final project for her Master's degree. I don't use Microsoft Office Suite applications, but they all did; yet, we shared and commented on files, no problem.
The key to working together collaboratively online isn't your computer technology or your budget; it's how the other humans you are trying to work with save, share and respond to information and requests for feedback. It's mostly about trust-building, good organization and good management.
Here are some tips for successfully sharing documents and data among people in different locations, without purchasing specialized software to do so. Even if you have the luxury of a wiki, you may find some of the suggestions below helpful in motivating staff to use such:
For all documents and files that need to be edited/reviewed by several people:
- It is vital that everyone understands that there are deadlines to be met, and that the deadlines are real. Provide a calendar to all document/data reviewers and contributors that highlights all deadlines: for content submission, first edits, second edits, phone/video conferences, final edits, etc. Reinforce these deadlines by sending an email reminder to reviewers two working days before each deadline date.
- ONE person will need to be ultimately responsible for reviewing all of the comments and data, and attempting to incorporate the changes into the document or file. If you have more than two people reviewing a document or file and submitting changes, it will probably be impossible to incorporate all of everyone's edits; the final editor must be empowered to make decisions regarding which edits to accept and which to leave out.
- Consider having at least one online chat and conference call or online call (yes, all at the same time!) regarding the document after first edits are submitted by reviewers, so that everyone can highlight what they think is most important about their own edits and additions.
- In addition to a conference call or online call with everyone, remember that some people may not feel comfortable sharing their feedback in a group setting; provide one-on-one opportunities for each person to provide feedback. Some people may even want their feedback to remain anonymous.
- Keep track of who has not provided feedback, and seek them out specifically to find out if they have read the information and have comments.
- Let reviewers see a later version of the document or file, to see how their edits were -- and weren't -- incorporated. Encourage them to provide feedback and, if there is some edit they feel strongly about that they don't see and still want, to highlight and, if needed, resubmit such.
- THANK REVIEWERS at EACH stage. Even if they are staff and it's part of their job to review such, you need to make an extra effort to thank them for their remote contributions; it will make it easier for future remote collaborations, because they will see and feel the value of the time they spent reviewing and editing. Thanking contributors by name in an email to everyone who was supposed to review a document also reminds those who did not submit edits how important such submissions are, and can prompt their participation next time.
Word-processing and documents for publication:
- Designate a naming system for reviewers and contributors to use when they return a document or file to you with their edits. For instance, require that each person add their initials at the end of the document's name (ofcourse, you need to make alternative suggestions for people with the same initials).
- For first drafts of documents, when the most important task is agreeing on basic text, save the document in a "low" version (you can find this under "Save as"), before you distribute the document to others. You can also save the document as an .rtf (rich text format) file; this will allow the document to be read by just about any word-processing software.
- Many word-processing software are cross-platform, meaning that everyone has the same edit features, which cause text changes to the document to be in a different color than the original. Otherwise, reviewers can put their changes in double brackets [[edits]], to make the changes easy to find.
- To allow reviewers to see a document in its designed form, such as via Aldus Pagemaker, simply save the document as a PDF file to submit to reviewers. However, submitting edits to such a document is tricky for most people, because most use the free version of the PDF reader, which does not allow a document to be edited. If you have allowed reviewers to edit text earlier in the process, their feedback should be minimal by the time a design is drafted, and their changes should be easy to
write out and fax back to you.
- Ofcourse, web designs are particularly easy to share among reviewers, no matter what kind of software they have, so long as the pages have been designed for the vast majority of browsers, not just one kind. Reviewers can insert their comments directly into files, in a different color or font style than the rest of the text (so long as they know HTML).
Here's a TERRIFIC primer that can get you thinking about sharing information online, and working together on files: Collaborative Writing, from Web2practice: Emergent technologies and innovative practice. Each guide consists of a short animated video explaining the key concepts, supported by a more in-depth printable overview of the topic, covering the potential uses, risks and how to get started. The guides and the resources used to create them can be downloaded, modified and shared under a creative commons licence.
A caution on the sharing of designs, from consultant Jack Vickery of Vancouver:
"Designing web pages when there is a significant difference in resolutions or the restriction of colours used can be extremely frustrating. I once spent several days of back and forth emails with a client who was complaining that the photos I had placed on her web site looked horrible. It was not until I saw the web site on her computer that the penny dropped, she had the resolution set to 600 x 480 and 16 colours (required by a scrabble game she liked to play). Once I showed her how to reset to something more common the problem (literally) vanished.
- Everyone needs to have the same field names for data they are going to share. For instance, one person shouldn't call a field "first_name" and another person call the same field "firstname". Get uniformity in all field names to make data sharing easier.
- Agree which fields of information will be shared and which will not . All staff should not have access to, for instance, the names and addresses of an organization's donors, or salary data for staff.
- A database design can be shared via screen captures, if different people and organizations don't have the same software (but probably, you aren't sharing database designs but, rather, DATA).
- Have a way to identify what data came from which organizations, departments or offices. Each individual record should have a field that tells the person or organizations from which the data in that record (name, address, phone number, etc.) came from.
- Follow the guidelines outlined in Importing Information Into A Database
You can share files as attachments to email, but you run the risk of such emails being blocked by junk mail filters. A free alternative is to create an online discussion group via YahooGroups or GoogleGroups, and use the file-sharing function for the group to share your data with others. Both of these free options allow you to restrict membership and the viewing of any data that you put up on the group, and use of either will NOT create more junk mail for users (provided you keep your group private).
Ultimately, no matter what method you use to share information and solicit feedback, trust and participation will make or break the system: everyone involved in the process should feel that you can be trusted you to hear and value their feedback, they must quickly and easily "see" the value of their participation, and they must see the results of the time and energy they spend in reviewing information and providing feedback. No software in the world can build trust or guarentee participation; only the way you respond and relate to others, and your own commitment, can do this.
Do you have other tips for working on documents remotely, without having to purchase special software? Send me your suggestions!
- Sharing Your Work With Volunteers (and Others) Online, which reviews how (and why) to share your work -- your calendar, files, databases, online polls, and more, with volunteers, remote staff and other groups as part of your work for a nonprofit/NGOs/civil society organization.
- Getting the Most Out of Yahoo!Groups . I am or have been the administrator for several YahooGroups, and I've created several customized help files for users of those groups. I share them all online. In addition to encouraging YahooGroups members to use these files to help improve their online experience, any Yahoo!Groups owners out there are welcomed to use them and adapt them as they like. (this resource was originally published in my monthly email newsletter Tech4Impact).
These resources from TechSoup:
MacWindows, a site for macintosh/windows integration solutions. Includes tutorials about making Macs and Windows work together, practical info for users of cross-platform products, and listings of products and links to manufacturers sites.
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