Perfect online collaboration

What does the ideal online collaboration model look like? Much of the work I am involved with at the moment concerns helping people work better with one another using online tools, both in local government and (once we have the technology in place) in further education. This means sharing information, which could be in a number of formats, discussing it and then editing it as a group.

A discussion that Steve Dale and I had at the Online Information Conference concerned what the environment would look like. The method used in the Communities of Practice platform for local government is by making blogs, forums and wikis available as separate entities. This means that the user can choose the medium that best suits their material, or which allows for the type of collaboration required. The problems with this approach are that:

  • Folk don’t always know which one to choose in the first place
  • The manner of collaboration can change throughout a discussion

So, maybe what’s needed is a system that has all of the best bits of blogs, forums and wikis in one, without making the user choose at any point. They don’t really care what the precise definition of the tool that they are using, they just want to get on with things. Does such a tool exist? Well, almost.

WriteWith does most of what we want, I think. It’s based around document collaboration, in a very wiki-type way (notably in the excellent handling of versions and edit history), and it lets you start by uploading an existing documents, which makes things easy to get going. There is a comments feature right next to the editing area for discussion, and then you can publish at the end in a number of formats, including a blog.

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The collaboration side of things is excellent too. You can invite people to read, comment on and edit your document, and even set them tasks with deadlines. There are email alerts so you can keep up to date with what is going on with your document, as well as RSS feeds.

There are downsides though to this as the complete platform I described earlier. WriteWith is document-centric, so if a user just wants to start a conversational thread, they can’t. You need the document to begin with. It would be nice to be able to start a discussion and then begin work on the document all within the same platform. Also, you invite people to documents individually. It would be nice to be able to create groups with whom conversations and documents could be automatically shared.

And of course, the perfect solution would be for a white label version to be developed!

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