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How people in remote locations can work on the same document

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Think that your organization needs special software in order for people in different locations to work on the same document? Or that everyone must have exactly the same software to work on the same document?

Think again!!

The key to sharing documents isn't your computer technology; it's how your humans save and share information.

The vast majority of documents that need to be shared during a production process, particularly for mission-based (nonprofit) organizations, are word-processing documents. Even text that will ultimately be laid out using specialized software, such as Aldus PageMaker, often begin life as a word-processing document. Therefore, it's particularly easy to work together on content early in a document's life.

Here are some tips for successfully sharing documents among people in remote locations:

1) It is vital that everyone understands that there are deadlines to be met, and that the deadlines are real. Provide a calendar to all document reviewers and contributors that highlights all deadlines: for first edits, second edits, phone conferences, final edits, etc. Reinforce these deadlines by sending an email reminder to reviewers two working days before each deadline date.

2) For first drafts of documents, when the most important task is agreeing on basic text, distribute the document in a "low" version of the word processing software you are using. For instance, if you are working in Microsoft Word, save the document as MS 6.0. This will allow the document to be read by just about any word-processing software.

3) If everyone does have the same word-processing software, have them use the edit features that come with most such products, which cause text changes to the document to come in a different color than the original. Otherwise, reviewers should put their changes in double brackets edits, to make the changes easy to find.

4) Designate a naming system for reviewers and contributors to use when they return a document to you with their edits. For instance, require that each person add their initials at the end of the document's name (of course, you need to make alternative suggestions for people with the same initials).

5) Consider having at least one online chat or conference call (or even both at the same time!) regarding the document after first edits are submitted by reviewers, so that everyone can highlight what they think is most important about their own edits and additions.

6) One person will need to be ultimately responsible for reviewing all of the comments and attempting to incorporate the changes into the document. If you have more than two people reviewing a document and submitting changes, it will probably be impossible to incorporate all of everyone's edits; the final editor must be empowered to make decisions regarding which edits to accept and which to leave out.

7) Let reviewers see a later version of the document, to see how their edits were -- and weren't -- incorporated. Encourage them to provide feedback and, if there is some edit they feel strongly about that they don't see and still want, to highlight and, if needed, resubmit such.

8) To allow reviewers to see a document in its designed form, such as via Aldus Pagemaker, simply save the document as a PDF file to submit to reviewers. However, submitting edits to such a document is tricky for most people, because most use the free version of the PDF reader, which does not allow a document to be edited. If you have allowed reviewers to edit text earlier in the process, their feedback should be minimal by the time a design is drafted, and their changes should be easy to write out and fax back to you.

9) Of course, web designs are particularly easy to share among reviewers, no matter what kind of software they have, so long as the pages have been designed for the vast majority of browsers, not just one kind. Reviewers can insert their comments directly into files, in a different color and font style than the rest of the text.

10) THANK REVIEWERS at EACH stage. Even if they are staff and it's part of their job to review documents, you need to make an extra effort to thank them for their remote contributions; it will make it easier for future remote collaborations, because they will see and feel the value of the time they spent reviewing and editing. Thanking contributors by name in an email to everyone who was supposed to review a document also reminds those who did not submit edits how important such submissions are, and can prompt their participation next time.

This article first appeared in the February 2003 edition of TECH4IMPACT and is reprinted with permission from Jayne Cravens and Coyote Communications.

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