Blogger: Craig Roth
My job as an industry analyst sometimes requires me to be a detective. I'm in the midst of researching my upcoming document on "Content Authoring in the Enterprise 2.0 Age" and uncovered an interesting mystery.
Most of my day-to-day interactions are with end user clients, with a smattering of vendor conversations thrown in. But when researching a new topic I like to see what research is going on in academia, which is where I noticed an interesting phenomenon. One of the trends in content creation I'll be writing about is "collaborative authoring". This is the idea that more and more documents are being created as a collaboration between many authors, which introduces procedural and technical challenges. My research uncovered quite a bit of academic work in this area, but the lists of papers I found all mysteriously stopped around 2000. It's as if an academic meteorite hit the earth at the end of 2000, wiping out all the collaborative authoring researchers without a trace!
Did humanity solve the collaborative authoring problem rendering further research unnecessary? Or was a more nefarious hand at play? I had some theories, but this was just too curious to ignore, so I contacted some of the academics who were involved in this space in the late '90s to find out what happened. I'm happy to say they are still alive and well.
Dr. Sylvie Noël, an HCI research scientist for the government of Canada, fingered "free collaborative authoring tools such as Wikipedia" as a culprit. And since quite a few commercial products offering collaboration started coming out after 2000, researchers weren't as interested. Dr. Noël did point out that work continues under the rubric of "collaborative editing" (more encompassing than just authoring). Regarding collaborative authoring, she still hopes for "a popular product that meets the large corporations' needs and is as simple to use as email." Me too.
Dr. Michael Spring, Associate Professor of Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh, pointed out that while the research assumed people author content together, in reality there is generally one owner with others just commenting. And getting information workers to be a bit more structured and maybe - gasp! - look beyond Microsoft Word is often futile. Like Dr. Noël he points out a profusion of "good enough" tools like wikis and better reviewing features in Word. Once theory starts showing up in real, commercial products like word processors and wikis the grants and academic interest dries up pretty quick.
Dr. Spring had another observation that carries over into my research on attention management and improving employee productivity. After exploring the potential time and cost savings that technology could yield for distributed collaborative authoring for engineering standards, he wonders if "the senior engineers really didn't want to be that efficient." They liked getting together in first-class global cities to hang out together rather than efficiently exchanging snippets of content using web-based collaboration. In fact, these efficiencies could threaten the staff and budgets of their departments.
To me, it's unfortunate that this research has died down. Even if the theoretical level is now understood, it hasn't all been turned into practice and technology yet. Large vendors like IBM and Microsoft do have research groups, but I haven't confirmed they have picked up the research now that academia has handed it off. It's clear there is still more than enough room for some good ideas.