How to Improve Real-Time Document Collaboration

Although real-time document collaboration is necessary in the workplace, it is often difficult to achieve because of the lack of appropriate tools. Effective real-time document collaboration requires immediate and spontaneous group interaction to evoke and refine new ideas. Here, Knowledge Center contributor John Mohan explains why Web meeting tools are not viable solutions for real-time document collaboration, and why a many-to-many architecture solution can better facilitate real-time document collaboration in your organization.


Collaboration is a vague and all-encompassing term that needs to be further defined for the purpose of this discussion. Before proceeding, I would like to replace collaboration with the term document collaboration, which is defined as the ability to present or share documents in real time while simultaneously annotating or marking them up.

Although they are being marketed as such, Web meeting tools are not viable solutions for Web-based document collaboration. These tools were developed to solve a different problem: Web presentation and desktop sharing. Because of their underlying one-to-many architecture, these tools do not promote spontaneity (which is essential for viable collaboration) and aren't appropriate when they are used for document collaboration.

The only viable solution for participants to collaborate in real time is for all participants to work with the same client application that created the original document. What is required is a many-to-many (that is, clickless collaboration) architecture wherein every participant runs the same document manipulation application on their local workstation, whose input is distributed or replicated to the group.

The collaboration process can be described as a group of people working together to resolve issues and come to agreement on a work product. The group will work independently (that is, asynchronously) to review the product documentation, add their comments, respond to comments of the other members and finally reach a consensus. The collaboration process also requires that the group occasionally come together concurrently (that is, synchronously) so that each member can reinforce their individual points of view, evoke new spontaneous ideas and reach agreement.

Each participant needs to elaborate on their comments, probe the validity of others' comments and refine all the comments in relation to the group's overall objective. Effective collaboration requires immediate and spontaneous group interaction to evoke and refine new ideas. Effective collaboration is inhibited by artificial mechanisms that delay and frustrate this interaction. User immediacy and spontaneity decreases exponentially with the number of clicks required to perform an edit.