Too often, we’re scared to share
Up to 50 people can simultaneously edit a shared Google
document, spreadsheet, presentation or drawing. Those words strike terror in
every controlling author’s heart: “49 other people could change my work –
while I’m working on it?! No thanks.”
But changes aren’t necessarily bad; they often improve a
work. [Editor’s note: True!]
Collaborators can correct costs in spreadsheets, update logos in slides, or
erase errors in illustrations. Effective collaboration can improve results.
(Or, as Eric S. Raymond phrased it, “Given enough
eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”)
Too often, fear results in failure
Here’s how to identify – and overcome – common fears that
inhibit effective document collaboration. (These exercises work for groups of
up to 50 people, but groups of fewer than 20 are simpler for one instructor to
1. Fear of the unknown
Effective collaboration starts with “Show and Tell”,
or more accurately, “Tell and Show”. Tell people: “you can
collaborate on documents”, then show simultaneous editing in action. I
suggest a “Tell and Show” meeting: ask people to bring their
smartphone, tablet or laptop to a meeting at which they’ll have Internet
Before the meeting, create a new Google spreadsheet.
Starting at row 2, fill each row with “Participant 1”, “Participant
2”, etc. (Remember, you can have a maximum of 49 other people editing the
Next, share the spreadsheet. Use either the “public on
the web” or “anyone with the link” setting to ensure that anyone
Create a short URL to make it easy for participants to
access the spreadsheet. You can do this by copying-and-pasting the link to the
spreadsheet at http://goo.gl
or another URL shortening service, such as http://bit.ly. (Test your link by pasting it
into a new “incognito mode window” in Chrome to make sure it will
work for other users.)
During the meeting, ask people to count off: 1, 2, 3, 4,
etc. Ask people to remember this Participant number. Then display and read out
the short URL. Ask people to type the link into their browsers. (People with
existing Google accounts may need to login.) Walk around the room to help
people access the document.
Once they’re in the document, ask people to type their name
in the cell with their Participant number. You might also ask people to respond
to a question or two in other columns. For example, questions I sometimes use
include ones such as “One thing I want to learn today is…”, or “One
thing people might find interesting about me is…”.
(Feel free to copy or use my sample shared Google
spreadsheet at http://goo.gl/9bf69l.)
The point is to have all of the participants editing and
adding information simultaneously. Nothing removes the fear of real-time
editing like doing it!
Expose people to simultaneous editing with a publicly shared
2. Fear of failure
Next, pair each participant with a neighbor. Ask one
participant to create a document, and then walk them through the process of
sharing the document with the other participant. Have the other person join the
document and edit. Then reverse the process.
Admittedly, this exercise is simple, but people need to
experience success when creating and sharing a document. This provides that
hands-on experience – with you present to help. Again, success removes fear.
3. Fear of loss
People new to Google Docs often worry about loss both of
work and control: there’s no save button. That may be especially concerning,
since collaborators can change or delete work.
Address this fear head-on: display a document, select all
text, then delete everything. Type something like “Your work is gone.”
Then, choose File | See revision history. This will display prior version of
the document. Restore your deleted text from there. Ask the participants to
make changes, and then experiment with viewing earlier document versions.
People need to see that Google Docs automatically saves
their work. That knowledge reduces the fear of lost work.
4. Fear of chaos
Multi-person editing can cause chaos. Anyone can edit anywhere,
which means I could start typing right in the middle of a sentence you’re
typing. That can be frustrating.
Reduce collaboration chaos with coordination: assign chunks
of work to different people. For example, notice that we assigned each
participant a specific spreadsheet row to edit earlier. I suggest you assign
people to work on specific spreadsheet pages, slides or document sections. For
documents, I suggest you put a person’s name next to the section you want them
to write. There’s nothing stopping someone from editing another person’s
section (to correct a typo, for instance), but dividing the work into assigned
sections minimizes the chances of conflicting edits.
Comments also reduce editing confusion. Show people how to
select text, and then how to click the Insert | Comment menu. This doesn’t
change the text, but does call another person’s attention to possible changes.
Comments reduce chaos by identifying possible changes, without modifying the
If multiple users are editing a document at the same time,
chat may also help. Show people how to open the chat window to the right of the
text. People should use chat to communicate which section they’re editing,
which helps reduce conflicting edits.
5. Fear of exposure
The fifth fear new collaborators have is fear of exposure.
Work – or lack of it – is visible to others. Progress – or lack of it – is
Think of a project proposal. In the old days, I might ask
you to provide a project description. If I didn’t receive the description, I
might ask you to tell me your progress. You might say “I’m working on it.”
Now, with a shared document, I see your progress – or lack
of it. You work is visible. Your lack of work is visible.
This fear of making one’s work visible is the greatest
obstacle to adoption of online collaborative tools. Productive people have
little to fear: their productivity becomes even more visible. Less productive
people should be concerned: their lack of work becomes exposed.
The first four fears can be addressed with training or
exposure to tools. The fear of exposure cannot be addressed with training: it
can only be addressed with a culture change. (Or, possibly, personnel change.)
IT’s role: reduce the fear
Successful document co-creation requires each participant to
be proficient with the tool used. IT’s job is to make sure our users don’t fear
the unknown, don’t fear failure, don’t fear loss, and don’t fear chaos. Our job
is to make sure the only people that remain scared to share are those who
simply aren’t productive. Until then, we have plenty of teaching and training