Comparing document collaboration types: linear, real-time and concurrent

Drafting documents with others is one of the most important but stressful parts of many professionals’ roles. At a minimum any organisation with a quality management system will have a review process, where someone else will add comments or suggestions to drafts before approval. There are many scenarios where multiple people need to contribute to the same document because they have different fields of expertise or they have different viewpoints that need to be expressed.

Historically document collaboration meant circulating hard copies or disks and receiving comments or markups which someone would need to painstakingly combine. In recent years, many people have moved their document drafting to online methods.  These methods allow for quicker interaction between collaborators, whether that is using email, document management tools, or real-time tools.

Why different types of collaboration are necessary

Important documents are often drafted by teams of people who might have competing objectives for the document. In this instance, it can be beneficial to ensure that there is a clear process for controlling who can draft edits,  create safeguards to make sure unwanted errors aren’t introduced, and manage traceability of how decisions are made. 

Drafting an important document with multiple stakeholders is a consensus-building process. It’s more than just putting the right words in the right order; it requires expectation management, negotiation skills, and good communication. 

five people working at a desk on different devices

We created Barbal because we saw that people working on important documents don’t have the tools that let them collaborate efficiently. Different document editors promote different behaviours between collaborators and we wanted to make something that allows experts to do their jobs and negotiate faster.

A key aspect here is trust. Technical trust means can you trust someone not to make a mistake which can undermine the credibility of the document, this could be competence in drafting or expertise in the field. Even administrative tasks need to be undertaken by someone competent in the field, lest a seemingly minor error causes a major problem.

Another aspect of trust is the alignment of interests between the different parties to the collaboration. 

The concept of the “master document” is how trust is handled in collaboration. Who can edit the master document? Who is responsible for making sure the document is coherent overall? Who can approve changes?

In this article, we explore three different collaboration options available:

  • Linear
  • Real-time
  • Concurrent

Linear collaboration

Description

Linear collaboration involves a single master version of a document that is passed between stakeholders, usually via email, file sharers or a more sophisticated document management solution that allows check in/checkout . This creates a game of email tennis where it’s often unclear who’s holding the ball. A collaborator makes an edit and forwards the document as a file in an email, and another collaborator either revises or accepts the changes and emails the document back or along the chain. 

Great for

  • Personal documents which won’t be shared with others
  • Letters and correspondence
  • Essays and dissertations 
  • Documents where people different people work on distinct sections that can be stored as individual files
  • When only one person will be working on a draft at one time

Pitfalls

  • It is easy for changes to the document to get lost in translation due to a lack of version control and issues with comment tagging
  • High risk of human error when making edits
  • Security risk, as everyone who is sent the document has the master version controlling who has access can be problematic
  • Communication, as there is no real-time communication method with linear collaboration, those who should be involved in a direct line of communication can often get isolated. This can lead to edits made to the document getting overlooked

For large teams co-authoring the same document, linear collaboration is the opposite of a streamlined process. Collaborators spend more time sending emails, chasing feedback and searching for the most recent version of the document than actually working on the document. This leads to quality issues, delays and team member frustration. The entire process is fraught with distractions and complications which can make it stressful, turning experts into administrators, constraining their ability to do the best job they can.

Real time collaboration

Description

Real time collaboration involves multiple users  producing work on the same single document at the same time. Co-authors can make comments, suggest edits and revise documentation in a web application or collaborative software simultaneously in real time. 

Great for

  • Small teams working on informal documents
  • When there is small number of authors drafting in a linear manner
  • When there is a high level of trust between all collaborators
  • Idea generation and rapid iteration 
  • Documents that are drafted or reviewed during a meeting or workshop

Not suitable for

  • Teams with more than five members collaborating on one document
  • Complex documents
  • Asynchronous collaboration
  • When privacy is needed
  • Working with third parties

Real-time collaboration can be great for creative teams that need to collaborate synchronously. For example, when teams are brainstorming ideas and need complete visibility of each other’s work. However, when more than five people are working on the same document the process becomes painful as there is very little control. Co-authors can easily step on each other’s toes whilst making changes to work. This becomes particularly problematic when teams are working on complex documents or working with clients. With real-time collaboration, privacy and control are sacrificed, leading to a disorganised workflow. 

Concurrent collaboration (Barbal’s Solution)

Description

Concurrent collaboration involves co-authors working on their own copies of  the same document, where the editor automatically merges and disseminates updates between the collaborators. Unlike real time collaboration, co-authors have full control over their workflow; granting collaborators the ability to focus on their own work, draft in private and share their edits when they are ready. Everyone has access to the content relevant to them. Contributions are systematically reviewed before they are merged into the master document. 

Great for

  • Collaboration between distributed authoring and editing teams
  • Engagement with stakeholders throughout development
  • Maintaining a full audit trail of dialogue, decisions and justifications
  • Collaborating with clients or other parties
  • Progress monitoring and reporting
  • Accurate version control
  • Shared ownership of work
  • Instant communication between stakeholders

Not suitable for

  • Synchronous collaboration
  • Intense creative collaboration

Concurrent collaboration allows for decentralised(?)control over different sections of a document. Allowing stakeholders to concentrate on specific sections of a document without interfering directly with the master document. When authors are working on complex documents asynchronously, other co-authors having instant visibility can add unnecessary pressure. Concurrent collaboration supports individual team members working efficiently with each other without explicitly exposing their thought processes. 

Conclusion

Although both linear collaboration and real-time collaboration certainly have their respective advantages, when teams of over 5 members work on the same project their pitfalls can not be ignored, when compared to concurrent collaboration. When teams collaborate in real time the workflow can become abrupt and chaotic. When teams use linear collaboration the process becomes stagnant and unnecessarily time-consuming.

Barbal was created to bridge the gap between linear and real time collaboration by adopting a concurrent methodology. Incorporating a catalogue of all contract drafts, version control and comment flagging directly into the user interface. The software eliminates any security or privacy risks keeping a full audit trail of contributions and changes by all parties in one place without the need for any exterior tools. Barbal frees teams from needless admin and waste, ensuring business-critical documents get signed-off faster.

How intent affects collaboration

Collaboration is becoming ever more important in business especially as we overcome the challenges of the past twelve months. But have you ever stopped to consider what it actually means to collaborate?

Since founding Barbal I find myself mulling this more and more. Why is collaboration so important? How does collaboration interface with related concepts like consensus or negotiation? How do we ensure that we build a document editor that is truly collaborative, rather than just allowing people to work together more efficiently?

When I used to run collaboration training in a professional services firm I would ask the attendees to give a definition. It would invariably be something along the lines of “working together to achieve a shared goal”.

They always identified both parts; implying that working together isn’t collaborative unless it’s toward a shared objective.

Including the “shared goal” aspect is critical, it differentiates collaboration from simply resolving resource capacity issues by putting more bums on seats. By collaborating the participants are working towards something they could not have accomplished on their own if they had more time, or without recognising there is a higher order objective than just doing their own job. It distinguishes collaboration from quality assurance processes or procedural pass off of work between people with different skills.

Having reflected on my own work in standardisation, engineering and business ownership and observing how others have sought to use Barbal’s collaborative document editor, I have distilled collaboration down to three different attitudes. I call them intents. They cause the behaviours people display at different times during a collaboration.

The three intents of collaboration are:

  • Creative
  • Consensus
  • Adversarial

These are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they do result in very different outcomes for participants and their stakeholders.

Creative collaboration

Two people working together at a whiteboard

The old adage goes “two heads are better than one”. That’s because it’s often true. There are many types of work where working closely with someone else with similar or completely different views will turn up something that’s better than either could achieve by working in isolation. Creative collaboration isn’t limited to traditional “creative” industries, but can be applied in any discipline where problems need solving.

The purpose of creative collaboration is to seek synergy.

Consensus collaboration

Two professionals at a desk smiling and high-fiving

Often we have to work with others who have different core objectives, that might be a business that has to make money for its shareholders, or a delivery organisation that provides outcomes for its stakeholders. Consensus is a useful mechanism, it allows different parties to agree a bounded set of shared goals where there’s recognition that helping another party to achieve their goals has a multiplier effect on achieving one’s own goals too.

The purpose of consensus collaboration is seeking the highest order of agreement.

Adversarial collaboration

Shaking hands

Also in life, we have to work with others because we have to; usually because they have something we want. And more often than not it involves money and risk exchange. Sometimes it’s because we’ve been told to by a client or important stakeholder.

In this case the shared objective is simply to get the job done (and as quickly as possible). This collaboration is self-serving, but recognises the need for input or negotiation with others.

The purpose of adversarial collaboration seeking the lowest order of agreement.

In identifying the three intents of collaboration, I hope it helps you to recognise your own behaviours and perhaps is a quick reference framework to check the intent behind your work with others.

Where creative collaboration is laser-focused on a single shared goal, consensus collaboration allows space for each participant to bring their personal objectives to the table too. And whilst I would always advocate for consensus over adversarial collaboration, it can be useful to be aware in particular the distinction between these two intents and recognise the behaviours in the other people involved. Sometimes adversarial collaboration is necessary and collaborating at all is better than aggression.

Tom Bartley is co-founder of Barbal, a collaborative document editor that allows professionals to draft and review documents without the chaos.

This blog complements an upcoming blog in which we discuss the modes of collaboration; linear, real-time and concurrent It was originally published on Medium.