Collaboration on documents is a given in knowledge work. Seldom will one author be the sole contributor to a document; rather, two or more knowledge workers typically come together to create the content, make edits, fact check, and finalize.
There are myriad pitfalls in this process ranging from lost efficiency as a document is e-mailed around for review, requiring those involved to wait their turn to edit, and to version and save conflicts when different versions of the document are inadvertently created. Manually combining the work of multiple authors and editors into one document is a time consuming process – and definitely not a pleasant one.
To date, the greatest advancements in document collaboration have been the simple track changes and commenting functions found in most word processors. Being able to insert comments, make edits with the original text preserved, and, through the sometimes dizzying color coding, keep track of who did what and when, makes it possible to pass documents through a workflow process and arrive at a consensus without manually comparing multiple documents and manually merging them.
However, the track changes method is far from perfect. Its use is premised upon there being a single master copy of a document that is circulated to colleagues and editors, either as a file or via a document repository. In either case, there is one master copy and knowledge workers take turns writing and editing in a serial fashion.
Nordic River is a Swedish company trying to change that dynamic through TextFlow, an online document collaboration tool that takes a decentralized approach to collaborative document creation. TextFlow is browser-based, but also can be run as an Adobe AIR desktop application.
The Flash-based system lets the user drag-and-drop documents into the browser window where they are automatically merged with changes shown for approval or rejection. The suggested changes show up inline in the document (similar to the way a traditional word processor would display tracked changes) unless they are of a larger size, in which case the changes are presented in a color coded box with options to accept, move to scrapbook, hide, and reject.
All changes are also indicated by tabs on the left side of the page that are clickable to hide or show the changes. A box in the window shows whose documents are being merged, and this can be changed at anytime to adjust which documents are being merged. For example, it is possible for two colleagues who are subject matter experts to have their documents merged first, and then incorporate the changes of other authors.
TextFlow also serves as a repository by hosting documents on its server that also maintains an archive and history of each document. Documents that are created in or added to TextFlow can be put into a workflow via e-mail to colleagues and split and merged as many times as necessary. It is not necessary to be a user of TextFlow to participate in the workflow process. Because there is no master copy, every collaborator has a copy and can work concurrently without fear of creating version conflicts.
For companies that find themselves struggling to manage the document lifecycle, TextFlow may provide a very simple yet elegant solution that simplifies the authoring process.
Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.