Face your fears: Move past being too scared to share

Some people fear online document collaboration. Here's how to help people move past their fear of using shared Google documents.

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 manage.)

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 access.

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 spreadsheet.)

Next, share the spreadsheet. Use either the "public on the web" or "anyone with the link" setting to ensure that anyone can edit.

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 document.

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 original content.

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 public.

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.)

Heart of Fear

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 to do.