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How to collaboratively review documents with clients

collaborative document reviewCollaboration is a buzz word used by many IT and software providers. This article explores a specific aspect of collaboration: client review of business documents, such as proposals, legal documents, and project documentation. We look at three different collaboration approaches commonly used and outline some of the pro and cons.

 

 

Email attachment – The old fashioned way

Many businesses still use email attachments to share documents with clients to garner feedback or approval. There’s nothing surprising here since for years email has been the only way to exchange information with people outside the company network. However, an email attachment has serious drawbacks when it comes to client collaboration:

  • It generates many back-and-forth emails
  • The document owner needs to track answers and follow up with additional questions and clarification
  • It’s a wait-and-see process (wait to see everyone’s feedback)
  • Collaboration is ad-hoc: you receive individual feedback, not group feedback
  • The process is less reliable: it’s hard to keep track of all those emails

When I talk to people about the pros and cons of email collaboration, there seems to be a consensus that email is a viable option for small group collaboration (one-on-one) but that it quickly becomes inefficient as the number of recipients grows.

 

Online document sharing

As an alternative, more and more businesses turn to online file storage for client document collaborate. Online collaboration comes in different "flavors": Sharepoint, Box.net, Dropbox, or Saas providers such as Basecamp. These solutions let you upload your documents online and control client access and permissions on the shared document.

These tools provide basic collaboration features that let users with access download the file or open it in a viewer (read-only) mode. Typically, reviewers post messages that are attached to the file object. This has an obvious advantage against email: all resources and discussions are kept online. However this approach has several shortcomings:

  • It’s hard for clients to provide detailed feedback on specific sections of the document
  • All discussions take place outside the context of the document – how do you make sense of it?
  • It’s not adapted for multiple versions: feedback is linked to the document, not a version

Moving business document collaboration online works best on short documents that need a basic review. If you require detailed feedback, then you may want to explore inline document review.

 

Online and inline document review

Inline document review is the most advanced form of client collaboration. The main advantage is that it combines online sharing and in-context feedback (annotations inside the document). In-context review is far more accurate than having ‘ad-hoc’ discussions on the document, as discussed previously. Online annotation tools let you view the document (read-only) and attach comments inside the document that stick overtime. Like any other tool, annotations have drawbacks:

  • You often need to transform the document in a PDF or a read-only format
  • It is impossible to make edits directly in the document
  • Annotations are hard to track in long documents
  • You lose all comments if you make changes to the document (start with a new version)

Web-based editors such as Google Docs or Zoho Office suite are at the other side of the spectrum. They offer collaborative writing features that let multiple authors work on the same document simultaneously. However, those editors are not built for collaborative document review and only offer basic commenting features. They may work for internal company collaboration but offer limited access control and review workflow for client collaboration.

 

Where does Agilewords stand in all this?

We offer online and inline document review with a focus on client collaboration. Agilewords puts at your fingertips unique collaborative features such as:

  • Discussion threads, easy document browsing (by message, by page)
  • Online editing and change tracking
  • Personalized notifications and message feeds that link directly to the edited document section
  • Simple collaboration process (role-based, review deadlines, approval request)

 

Conclusion

Before selecting a tool for your document review, you should consider the number of collaborators involved, the level of control desired, security, and the need for on-document feedback or editing. The approaches discussed in this article all have pros and cons. At the end, you’ll have to do your homework and test different applications on a real project. This is your best insurance policy. Agliewords allows you to do exactly that for free. So why don’t you give it a try and tell us how it works for you?

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