In the fanfare surrounding Microsoft’s unveiling of Office and SharePoint 2010, the co-authoring capability Microsoft is offering in OneNote, Word, PowerPoint, and Excel stood out. Put simply, co-authoring is the ability of multiple people to work synchronously on a document. Microsoft has built a number of features to make real-time editing work: notification of who is working on the document and integration with OCS to facilitate conversations; locking of sections to editing; and a “save to share” feature that reconciles changes between editors after they’ve finished, to name a few. However, lost in this talk of real-time document collaboration is a more basic need that I believe Microsoft is actually solving (hinted at in the title of this post).

To test my hunch, I asked 16 of my colleagues – all users of productivity software – if they found the ability to be able to work on a document at the same time as a colleague useful. In their responses, a common theme emerged: reconciling edits – and reaching consensus on them – simply. This was expressed in a couple of ways: the desire to share edits with another as they watched (e.g. editor to author), or a desire to allow members of a group to freely make edits to a document whenever they needed to (e.g. a spreadsheet used as a tracker). Now, as expressed by my colleagues, the former case seems to be less of an occurrence than the latter: individuals are usually responsible for specific sections of collectively composed documents and cannot be hindered from making changes by someone else working on their section. In offering the co-authoring capability, Microsoft is basically fulfilling the dreams of anyone who has ever spent time trying to compile edits spread across several iterations of a document: allowing everyone to make edits when they need to in one document. Additionally, they’ve eliminated the cumbersome process of checking-in and checking-out documents from content repositories – something that has led many information workers to shy away from using these systems in the first place.

In providing these functions, Microsoft is finally delivering on the idea of a “living document” – a concept they tried to put forward with the version controls in SharePoint, but seem to really be delivering on here. That said, there are those who are skeptical as to whether or not this will work. As one of my colleagues noted, “I guess I’m a little skeptical over its usefulness, or the concept of it, because of previous bad [document management system] memories.” The proof, as always, is in the pudding – information workers have to be sure that the changes they make will actually be saved and reconciled with the master document. And, the process of undoing changes will have to be easy to master. Failing to assure these things will lead those users who were already sneaking off to offerings like Google Docs to continue to do so. The question that persists, though, is whether or not this is a game changer. Does this alter how individuals work? Well, I think in the short-run, the answer is definitely no. As one of my colleagues pointed out, “How organizations manage the process of document creation and revision is more important than the feature tool-set.” So, as with all collaboration topics, the effect the tooling has is based on the business’s ability (re: culture, processes, technical savvy) to use it properly. But for those organizations so inclined, co-authoring does allow for a document-centric collaboration process built around the ubiquitous productivity suite.