A brief history of collaborative documents

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright April 25, 2023
As Salesforce rolls out Slack canvas to the messaging platform's customers, it's time to take a look at the history and likely trajectory of collaborative documents.

Slack Canvas in Channel - Slack screenshot
Slack channel with canvas in sidebar (Slack screenshot)

The day that Salesforce starts rolling out Slack canvas to customers of the messaging platform is a good moment to take stock of how far collaborative documents have come — and where they're heading next. Slack canvas was announced at Dreamforce last September to provide a handy virtual pinboard for all those crucial information points and links that so easily get lost in streams of messages — text, video, documents, checklists, and embedded links to content and workflows from external sources and applications. A look back at the history of collaborative documents helps explain why all of these components matter and what else may be needed to maximize their utility.

Collaboration demands freeform, dynamic content

People have been collaborating on shared documents long before digital technology came along. Think about scientists and mathematicians collaborating around a blackboard — or, from as early as the 1950s or before, creative and management teams doing the same with a whiteboard. In manufacturing lines since the 1960s, teams have tracked work progress on kanban boards with moveable cards or sticky notes.

You may feel that I'm stretching the meaning of the word 'document' by using it to describe collaboration boards like these, but I'm doing it to make an important point. We think of documents as containers of fixed content that has been written down and becomes immutable — unless you have an eraser or some correcting fluid handy. But these examples remind us that changing and evolving the content is implicit in the notion of collaboration. In a collaborative context, it is important for any participant to be able to erase, replace and move items on the shared workspace.

Once you take something like a whiteboard or a kanban board and make it digital, the content becomes even more fluid because of how easy it is to move and change things virtually. Therefore, when you make documents digital, they can only become truly collaborative when they break free of the imagined constraints of their paper-based antecedents.

Sharing documents online doesn't make them collaborative

Even the earliest word processors did away with the need for erasers and correcting fluid, bringing fluid editing to the written word. The Web brought the opportunity to bring that digital freedom online. After a failed attempt by Corel Software to port the then popular PC-based program Wordperfect to the browser in the late 1990s, the mid-2000s saw the advent of a new breed of online word processors, including Writely, the forerunner of Google Docs, and Zoho Docs, among others. Microsoft Word gradually became available online a few years later, along with the rest of the Office suite.

But while Google Docs (and Writely before it) always had collaborative editing built in, this never emerged as a primary use case for these document processors. Enterprises were still stuck in the mold of the traditional, static, paper-based document that all their processes were built around. Collaboration evolved around documents. Having them online made them easier to share and even add comments, but the end result was a fixed document, more often than not intended for printing out or sharing in PDF form. Even today, it's still commonplace for teams to edit documents by circulating redlined Word documents via email with 'track changes' turned on. This isn't something I'd class as a collaborative document.

Collaborative documents demand a different mindset

For truly collaborative documents, you have to turn to vendors who specialize in collaboration, such as Atlassian, whose wiki-style Confluence app probably qualifies as the first truly collaborative document platform. But if you're looking for direct lineage through to Slack canvas — a shared workspace whose purpose quite literally is to keep a team on the same page — I'd argue that you have to look back ten years to when content teamwork vendor Box introduced Box Notes — with former Writely co-founder and Google Docs lead engineer Sam Schillace in charge of its development. It was greeted by many as a potential rival to the likes of Google Docs, but it was on a different path from online word processors. Its purpose was not to create static documents, but to enable and enrich collaboration.

Like many of its successors, Box Notes is popular among Box users, but hasn't exactly caught the imagination of the outside world — people don't adopt Box because of Notes. This isn't an issue for Box, but a similar reaction has been much more significant for pureplay collaborative document vendors such as Coda, or even Salesforce-owned Quip, much of whose technology has now been incorporated into Slack canvas. Dropbox brought out a very similar product to Box Notes in 2015 when it launched Dropbox Paper, and then in 2019 launched Dropbox Spaces, which added shared workspaces with integrations to multiple third-party applications. While Paper is popular with many Dropbox customers, adoption of the more sophisticated Spaces didn't live up to expectations.

The challenge for all these vendors is that mainstream enterprise cultures and patterns of work are still largely oriented around paper-based processes. Organizations may be losing millions of dollars through time lost emailing files around, searching for information and switching between tasks, but these processes and workarounds are at least familiar to their people. Adopting a truly collaborative mindset requires an investment of effort and change management that many aren't ready for.

Collaborative documents need to connect

One final characteristic of truly collaborative documents that remains a work in progress is that they must be connected — plugged into all the other apps, content and workflows that people use in their daily routines. This was the big selling point of Dropbox Spaces; it's an important element of Slack canvas; Google introduced a similar capability when it launched its own Smart canvas two years ago; and the integration of Microsoft Teams with Power Apps and the inbuilt Dataverse technology serves a similar purpose.

This adds the final element of what I've been calling the Collaborative Canvas — a shared fabric for channeling enterprise teamwork that connects across messaging, content, apps and workflow. But connecting into all of the applications that people use an enterprise is a major exercise that can often take years to fully complete, even with today's more flexible API-first architectures. Vendors need to do more to ease this technology aspect, at the same time as providing more support for the changes in culture and practice that successful adoption of truly collaborative digital teamwork requires.

Bringing it all together

A truly collaborative document or virtual workspace needs to bring together all these aspects. It needs to support freeform, dynamic content that isn't bounded by old-world notions of a paper document — this is why Google Docs now has a 'pageless' mode, because a shared digital document doesn't need to be restricted to the confines of a printer layout. It needs to be able to connect freely out to other content and data sources, applications, tools and workflows, initially targeted at those most commonly used by its frequent users, but ultimately throughout the enterprise and beyond. Most of all though, it needs to be adopted with a digital-native mindset that can rise above the paper-based legacy of the past. Getting the right technology in place is just the beginning of the journey.

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