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Mobile devices, with their native capabilities of voice, video, connectivity, and portability are an enterprise productivity power-house. They have the possibility to allow teams to collaborate in ways that used to require separate pieces of equipment. However, as with many of the topics I have been covering, the capabilities of the PC for collaboration are much more mature and thought-through in the enterprise setting, than for mobile.
There are several aspects to collaboration – a few of the high-level tenants are:
- Content creation
- Project Organization and Management
We’ll be examining these different angles of collaboration over the next few weeks to assess their current state and capabilities from a mobile perspective. I’ll begin with content creation since we recently looked at office productivity suites.
Expertise and knowledge is often shared across a team. Collaborative file creation is a very common task. This allows each person on the team to contribute his or her subject matter expertise to arrive at the best possible outcome. As we saw last week, the tools to create the files, though not fully mature, do exist for mobile devices. However, the initial file creation is just the first step in the collaborative process. Files need to then be distributed in a frictionless way to the team.
Many mobile apps have a public cloud infrastructure they leverage to allow for the sharing of files to a team. For example, Evernote, Quickoffice, OfficeSuite, Box, Dropbox all provide the facilities to share files quickly and easily with others. By default many of these file shares lock down the content, which is great for security. The challenge with sharing files, however, is the effort to control user access permissions. At best, they are on a folder level and at worst, on a file by file basis. That might be ok if you have a single picture of your kid you want to share with a friend, but real projects have dynamic teams, complex file structures, and need the ability to be managed quickly and at scale. Having to manipulate file permissions on a file by file basis will not work in an enterprise setting.
Feedback is also a large part of document collaboration for a team. In that regard, mobile has a gaping hole in capability as compared to the PC. It is not possible to track changes that users make on documents on a mobile platform. This eliminates a much needed feedback mechanism for team collaboration. Track Changes is simply a must-have feature. I do not see how any organization could operate without it in a mobile-only capacity if their teams need to collaborate on documents.
There are a couple of less than ideal workarounds for the time being to make up for not having the capability to track changes. But, these should be in no way considered a substitute. Some apps/services offer the ability to comment on a file. Box, for example, offers this capability. Users can select a file and add a free form text comment to it. This at least allows multiple users to give feedback, ask questions, and manually note any changes made to the file. Another less-than ideal option is for users to leverage services such as CloudOn or OnLive to run the native Microsoft Office application. Lastly, users could use RDP to connect to their desktop and again run the Microsoft Office application. All of these options are lackluster. The exclusion of the Track Changes feature is a huge black-eye to mobile collaboration.
A close cousin to Track Changes is version control. This allows teams to quickly roll-back to previous versions of the file should it be desired. This also allows teams to pick up content creation at a previous point or create a branch of the file. While this may be a bit more of an advanced feature, there are many companies that have become accustomed to its use in platforms, such as SharePoint For many teams, this is a non-negotiable and would be a deal-breaker to go mobile-only in its absence.
Another collaborative content creation feature that needs to be addressed in a mobile-only context, is file/paragraph locking. This assures that only one person can work on the file/paragraph at a time to avoid collisions and version issues. This safe guard saves a lot of headache and headache over the course of a project that has many team members.
Mobility holds the promise of connecting teams distributed across great distances and time-zones in ways that were not native to the devices of the past. However, at the present time, there are certain features that have gone backwards in terms of collaboration capabilities on mobile devices. Features such as Track Changes are must-haves in an enterprise, where content is created collaboratively by teams. What other features do you rely on during file creation that you see missing in a mobile context? Post a comment and let me know!
Next week – we’ll look at other aspects of team collaboration via mobile devices.
Benjamin Robbins is currently a Principal at Palador, a firm that focuses on providing strategic guidance to enterprises in the areas of mobility, apps, and data. You can follow him on Twitter. Mr. Robbins resides in Seattle and blogs regularly at http://www.remotelymobileblog.com