How to recognize and fix 4 problematic Google Docs collaboration behaviors

People sometimes use collaborative tools in less than collaborative ways. Here are four ways to overcome common challenges.

Google Docs offer people all sorts of useful document collaboration features. You can insert comments (select text, choose Insert > Comment), suggest edits (in a desktop browser, switch from Editing to Suggesting mode in the upper right), or name the version for future reference (in a desktop browser, choose File > Version history > Name current version). And, of course, with full edit access, you and your collaborators may make changes to your document together in real time.

But people don't always use collaborative tools to collaborate. I've encountered people with G Suite accounts—which means they have access to Google Docs!—who choose to work in decidedly non-collaborative ways. In every case, these people seek to share information. But the way they choose to share information makes it difficult for other people to read, respond, or act.

I've identified the following four potentially difficult document collaborator types. More importantly, with each type I've also included a recommended remedy—a suggested step toward collaboration to take with each person.

1. The multiplying document editor

Most often, you'll recognize the multiplying document editor while in email. You'll share a Google Doc with someone, and they'll reply with an email and an attached file. The email contains their comments, and the file—often converted into Microsoft Word—contains edits to your text.

Yes, that's right: They've taken an online, collaborative document and transformed it into an offline, non-collaborative attached file.

Multiple files, with file names that include version numbers such as v1, v2, v3, v3 also indicate that you're dealing with a multiplying document editor. In older ways of working, people needed multiple files and version names to track versions and edits. But a single, shared Google Doc (and all of the various version history features) eliminates the need for multiple emailed attachments.

To improve: Take time to show the multiplying document editor how to share a Google Doc, how to insert comments, how to use suggesting mode, and how to save a named version of a document. Often, the multiplying document editor simply lacks hands-on familiarity and experience with the collaborative capabilities of G Suite apps.

2. The tome writer

You won't hear from the tome writer often, but when you do, you'll see a long document to read through. Often, these massive missives cover activities that occurred over the past several weeks or months. The intent is often good: The tome writer wants to "keep people informed." But since these documents typically arrive too late for the reader to provide useful feedback, the lengthy update often remains unread.

To improve: Track the intervals between updates from a tome writer, then set a Calendar reminder to prompt the person for updates more often. For example, if you receive a massive update every 12 weeks, contact the person roughly five weeks after their last update and ask, "Any chance you can share an interim update soon?" (Or, even better: Configure Hangouts Chat for your group to encourage a steady stream of sharing among the team.)

3. The stream of consciousness scribe

The stream of consciousness scribe delivers documents that are impossible to skim. The document includes not only all the relevant content, but also plenty of unimportant information, as well. Worse, the document omits formatting and visual cues that allow the reader to identify important information. When you open a document that lacks titles, numbered items, and section breaks, you've encountered a stream of consciousness scribe.

To improve: Use Google Calendar to schedule a time to talk with the stream of consciousness scribe about the document format. (In person, open the document and edit as you go. If remote, you might use Hangouts Meet to share screens.) Ask the person to describe the most important items in the document. As they emphasize points, add paragraph breaks, insert sections, and apply styles (Format > Paragraph styles) to add visual hierarchy and order to the document. Delete unnecessary content.

4. The buried action bard

Finally, the buried action bard's document omits a clear call to action. The document fails to clearly identify WHO needs to act, WHAT they must do, or WHEN they must do it. Many times the bard's documents tell an easy-to-read, interesting narrative. Often, these documents list reasons (i.e., WHY) or document details (i.e., HOW). The bard leaves the reader with, at best, a vague sense of the next action recommended.

To improve: Create an action-focused Google Doc template, with a clear "Actions needed" section at, or near, the beginning of the document. (If you use G Suite, check with an administrator to make sure template use is enabled for your organization.) Work with colleagues to encourage use of this template for all documents that require formal action.

Other document collaborator types?

Have you encountered any of these collaborator types in your organization? Or, have you discovered other elegant remedies to collaboration challenges? Let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@awolber).

Also see

Illustration shows Google Doc in center surrounded by two icons of people on either side, with arrows pointing to the Doc
Illustration: Andy Wolber / TechRepublic

About Andy Wolber

Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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