Document collaboration inside and outside the organisation

Some organisations publish office documents on their Intranet or even public facing website. Inside an organisation there is still typically a continuous exchange of office documents taking place, in some cases by sending a text or spreadsheet attached to an email message while in other cases there may be a more structured workflow involving for instance a midoffice application or document management solution. The outward-bound communication is typically also very diverse.

There are many different solutions to optimise vastly different usages. To choose the collaboration solution that best fits the users in a certain context, it is important to know what kind of interaction is required. There are cases where a document is authored by a single person and broadcast for mere reading to some audience without expecting immediate feedback. In other situations iterations of the same document are sent back and forth between a group of co-authors jointly responsible for the intended end result. In yet other cases there is a very strict protocol where each version of the document goes through formal stages of approval, and digital signatures are applied to validate any interactions with the document. There is a dedicated chapter on document security that highlights some of the possibilities and issues with this kind of approach.

Probably the common case is when a limited group of readers is expected to review a document and produces comments or concrete textual suggestions for the document, while final responsibility (and control) rests in the hands of a single person or role.

Change might be on its way, as new technology solutions are enabling for instance real-time collaboration of multiple authors on the same document. While not suitable for every situation, real-time collaboration solutions avoid many of the typical issues and provide easy sharing and in some cases controlled access.

In this chapter you will find some information about both the “classical” collaboration facilities as well as these recent developments, and the work the ODF Advanced Document Collaboration Subcommittee of the ODF TC at OASIS is doing in these areas.

Do you really need “office documents”?

A important question to ask is before you start is: at what point in your process do you really need “office documents”? For many simple use cases, desktop office suites are in fact rather heavy handed and inefficient solutions. Even if an office document in your corporate style is the intended output (and do ask yourself the question if that is a real requirement as well), that does not necessarily imply using a desktop office application.

If all you need to do is to work on some short text with others, web technology-based workflows might actually be more flexible, convenient and cost-effective. Going back and forth between ODF and text is easy. Check if your users would actually be better off working with for instance HTML directly, as this avoids the cost of yet another contact surface. Every modern networked device has a browser, so any web technology based application has the benefit of not requiring any installation or additional training. Web technology based tools are therefore relatively easy to use with people outside.

There are quite a few solutions that allow an organisation to cut down the complexity to just what is needed for a specific process. Such applications for instance allow the user to compose a document with generic document building blocks mixed with custom content, and subsequent efficient review by others. Some allow you to exchange information directly with your ERP system or customer relationship management database. You can create such a work-flow with one of many open source and commercially embeddable software components or using out-of-the-box solutions like CIB). Whether or not this kind of collaboration can contribute to the efficiency for your organisation, depends on the actual processes.

A structured approach towards streamlining your workflow can significantly raise quality and eliminate errors, and be more reliable and convenient for your users. It does require organisational maturity and a thorough understanding of ones processes.

If you are writing longer generic text with multiple authors, such as a book or brochure, consider using a writers platform such as BookType. This is open source web technology based software that allows authors, editors, and other stakeholders to work and communicate simultaneously through the browser, while the result can be exported to not just ODF, HTML and PDF, but also various electronic book formats such as EPUB.

Offline review

For offline review, there are two basic mechanisms offered inside the OpenDocument Format standard. Reviewers can add their comments and suggestions by either adding *annotations* (remarks or notes) or using *change tracking*. Both mechanisms are much safer than adding remarks inside the body of the text, which might be left in the text and can cause embarrassment when published. Both annotations and change tracking can be removed automatically by web publishing software. It really depends on the use case what is the best solution, and in some cases the best solution is to combine annotations and tracked changes.

Annotations

Annotations are textual notes attached to the content of a document. By convention they are visualised as a ‘Sticky Note’ in the page margins of the document, but every application may have its own alternative. Their content is also available through assistive technology, such as a Text-To-Speech reader.

Using annotations is a very reliable and stable way of collaborating, that is known to work consistently across almost all implementations. The commenter attaches his or her comments at a certain position or across a selected part of the document, and the final editor manually processes each comment and makes any necessary modifications to the document based on these suggestions. He or she can also reply to the notes. Final revision can be done in the document containing the annotations, or in the original version of the document. It is generally perceived as polite and non-intrusive to annotate a document.

Note that PDF offers similar annotation facilities as ODF does, so can be used as an interchangeable alternative with your users. If you work with a large amount of people reading your documents, and you also need to verbally discuss, PDF has the added benefit of having fixed page numbering. There are some excellent open source tools such as Docear and I, Librarian that allow you to sort documents and annotations (comments, bookmarks, and highlighted text from PDFs) into categories, and allow you to view multiple annotations of multiple documents, in multiple categories – at once.

Change Tracking

Change-tracking is used to provide wording suggestions within the text. The recipient may accept or neglect the suggestions.

Note that change-tracking is an optional enterprise feature of the ODF standard, which is supported by many but not all office applications. For instance, current versions of Microsoft Office are not able to record any change-tracking information when saving a document to ODF. Older versions of Microsoft Office that used the open source ODF Converter addin did have change tracking capabilities. Note that this feature is If this feature is important to users of the current versions of Microsoft Office, the source code of the add-on is available for anyone and development could be easily restarted.

Change-tracking can be both more efficient and at the same time likely to be perceived as intrusive. Rather than describing potential changes and leaving the text visually intact, the reviewer provisionally applies the changes he or she would like to see made to the document. The benefit of using tracked changes of course is that in simple scenarios the comments can be automatically processed (‘approve all’ or ‘reject all’) very fast. The editor can switch between both the proposed text and the original text with all the changes. Most editors visually mark changes as strike through, which can come across somewhat harsh and disrespectful to the original author. This psychological effect is culturally determined.

Reliability

Users can easily forget to turn on change tracking, or may have turned it off and on again. Especially if people are using different applications, aged versions of software or mobile apps, not all modifications to the document may have been correctly captured. The document might also have been modified by a virus or other malware. If the document has left the safe environment is therefore not entirely safe to assume that only the changes visible in the change tracking log were made. Only in case you are able to oversee the whole document, and can easily verify the completeness and correctness of the resulting document, should the returned version of a document containing tracked changes be used as the basis. In case of doubt, it is safest to use the original document and redo the changes recorded.

There are possibilities to automatically compare documents from top to bottom to find out all modifications. Some office applications offer the option to compare documents. There are also standalone solutions. For instance the British company DeltaXML produces a well-known tool that can highlight all the differences between two versions of a document for manual inspection. Certainly for large documents this is a reliable way to compare different versions of ODF documents. Of course one can integrate such a solution as a plugin to for instance an office suite.

Automated multiway merging

Sometimes comparison is too time consuming, as in many cases lenghty documents are sent for review and comments to a wider audience. In a classical mail-oriented workflow, this means that the sender may end up receiving a significant number of modified copies back containing changes or textual suggestions from multiple persons. It is quite a (manual) task to then incorporate these suggested changes back into a single document. Sometimes people forget to turn on track changes, and their additions or deletions silently disappear and information gets lost.

There are solutions available to solve the merging problem in a programmatic way. Software like ODT Merge can intelligently merge all the suggested changes from a number of modified documents into a single document. Common scenarios where this type of solution comes in handy, is resolving conflicts that might occur when multiple users check in the same edited document, or in case you have to merge changes from different branches of a text.

Automatic merging solutions goes beyond accepting or rejecting changes from multiple reviewers while working on just one document. With this kind of solution you can also *clean up* changes to make the editing work faster. The software can group small adjacent changes together for easier comparison, as well as optionally ignore markup changes where these represent disallowed formatting. Especially if you want to allow multiple authors to work simultaneously on large documents and want to have strict control, this type of merging solution can be really useful and increase productivity and reliability.

Clean up before you publish

Typically the discussions and comments from reviewers are not meant for public consumption, because they represent or refer a state of the content of the document without final consensus. If you publish documents on your website, you probably want to remove track changes and annotations programatically, for instance using an open source software library such as lpOD or an application like MetaClean.

Real-time collaboration

In less formal situations it can save a lot of time and effort to allow multiple people to edit a document at the same time. This is often called ‘real-time collaboration’. There are some well-known ODF-aware solutions available ‘as-a-service’ only, such as Google Docs and Zoho Office.

The use of third party web tools hosted outside of your organisation often does have security and privacy considerations, both for the organisation and for the citizens or customers involved. Use of a third party web application constitues a leak of information about who your users are, and what some of their interests are. Their use may within the public sector therefore may be controversial, not only when you work with sensitive data that is personally identifiable.

Such issues are not relevant with applications you can host locally within an organisation. Some of these are web applications such as OX Apps, OwnCloud, EtherCalc and Typist. Other applications consist of a desktop client that offers real-time capabilities, such as AbiWord.

Especially the web applications offer the benefit of easy deployment by an organisation for both internal as well as external usage, without any compromise on confidentiality and security. The fact that an organisation can run software within the walls of its own institute (or anywhere else it chooses to trust), means the organisation can remain in full control of its own security and privacy at all times. In an ideal scenario it should be the *owner* of a document that determines who has access, and how access restrictions are actually enforced. In all instances the owner or the organisation should be able to set the security regime for each individual document.

If none of the above solutions fit your need, you can either extend upon their capabilities to add additional features, or engineer a tailored solution. Bringing office technology into the browser as a reusable component has made it possible to combine document creation and editing with existing web applications and close the gap between documents and data. This kind of capability can therefore also be used to create efficient and reliable tooling with shared editing features in specific work flows. The open source WebODF is not just used in webmail clients, CMSes but for instance also within Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis Software. That way you can have a targeted user interface to make data entry more efficient while being completely compatible with ODF.

Case study

Pleio is an online platform for the Dutch public sector with its roots in the Civil Servant 2.0 network in the Netherlands. Pleio is based on the popular open source social media software ELGG. Late 2014 the Dutch province of Gelderland wanted to have embedded editing and viewing facilities for office documents inside Pleio, and asked an SME to integrate an ODF editor into the platform.

By using the open source project WebODF, it took less than two months to develop a working single person editor as a plugin for ELGG. This makes it possible to edit documents in any browser with Pleio providing access control, and without remote dependencies or installing software on the user side. The first version of the plugin has recently been released and is now available to all 6500 groups and 57.000 users of Pleio entirely for free, without any additional or recurring licencing costs. Next step for the project is to add collaborative editing capabilities, which will be done leveraging the Typist standalone collaborative editor that the same team is also known to be developing.

The Ellg plugin is released as open source as well.

Standardisation

The next evolutionary step for the ODF file format is to not only define the static document file format, but also a standardised way for software programmes to exchange how content is being edited. Such an application program interface or API provides interoperability not only for the type of documents you distribute non-interactively, for instance by email, but also changes sent by real-time collaboration suites. This will be done by defining the common changes that been made by the user to the content described by the file format. These capabilities provide transparency of feature support to the customer, and have the additional benefit of allowing conformance tests of ODF applications on the standards level. This is ongoing work at the ODF Advanced Document Collaboration Subcommittee of the ODF OASIS group. If your organisation has an interest in this work, you might want to consider joining as a member or providing sponsoring for it.