Google Docs with SMEs

Will Richardson introduced me to the idea of using Google Docs with SMEs rather than sending zillions of Word docs as attachments through email. He was right–it really is much simpler for collaboration. Everyone always has the current version of the document, and there’s no need to keep separate archives of all the past versions.

Google Docs is easier for sharing with other members of my team when needed. Because we don’t have an actual editor, we try to review each other’s work. I prefer to have someone else read the content before I put it into the web pages; it’s just easier to edit text before I’m in Dreamweaver. Sharing with someone else is just a matter of sending another invite.

Google Docs has worked very well for drafts of writing with SMEs. Generally, we use different colors to show comments. If a SME has a question about something, it usually ends up as colored text directly in the document, and I reply in a different color. That works OK as long as we both are consistent about who uses what color. The unsigned comments can get a little confusing if we aren’t consistent.

Disadvantages & Issues

Formatting can be a challenge, especially if documents are moved back and forth between Word & Google Docs. Multilevel bulleted lists (which we use extensively for outlines) are also erratic. I find myself frequently going into the html to edit directly when I can’t control the WYSIWYG formatting. Very few of my SMEs can do that though. Usually it’s OK, as precise formatting isn’t important for a draft, but it’s still irritating sometimes.

Most SMEs haven’t used Google Docs before, so some training can be necessary. A few people have totally resisted learning this, and sometimes it just isn’t worth pushing. If a SME is struggling in other areas and learning new technology stresses them out, I’d rather just use the familiar Word attachments than force them to use Google Docs. It’s a case of picking your battles, and this isn’t important enough to me to make it a battle if the SME really resists.

When Google Docs came up in a networking group discussion lately, someone pointed out that security may be a concern. If you’re working in a super sensitive business where regular password protection isn’t enough, Google Docs may not be a good choice. It is possible to do a secure connection to Google Docs though (use https://docs.google.com/ instead of http://). You’d have to train your SMEs to use a secure connection as well, but if that’s important to you it’s probably possible to do the training. Personally, regular password protection is enough for what I do.

Has anyone else used Google Docs (or another online office application) with their SMEs? How has it worked for you for collaborating? Any tips on making it more productive?

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3 thoughts on “Google Docs with SMEs

  1. Have you given any thought to a content management system? I would recommend setting up Drupal and seeing if it would work well: http://drupal.org/

    When I think of collaborative content creation for the web, I usually think CMS or Wiki. Wikis are good for content that should be public immediately, and CMS is good for which you need centralized publish control and access rights.

    It might be a little better than Google Docs because you would own your own data storing it in house. If security were an issue, you could set it up only over https. The wealth of plugins means that you could also customize it for whatever works best for your clients.

    It would require some administration and backups, though.

  2. One of our other instructional designers is playing around with private wikis for this. The company is very concerned about protecting their intellectual property–we’d never get a public wiki to fly for our drafts of course content. We use a wiki extensively for our internal team documentation, and it works really well.

    I hadn’t thought about Drupal for this, although I had looked at it briefly previously for some of our internal group collaboration. It’s an interesting idea, and I haven’t heard of anyone using this with SMEs before.

    I’m sure there’s some more technical expertise needed for setup, customization, and administration. Once it was created though, would it be easy for the SMEs to use? Many of our SMEs are not technical, and we don’t want to spend a lot of time training them if we can help it.

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