Collaborative Writing Is Hard to Support: A Field Study of Collaborative Writing
This paper documents the results of a field test of Instant Update, a collaborative writing tool by a geographically dispersed department at the MITRE Corporation. Thirty-six participants were given Instant Update software and free training and support in exchange for their cooperation with data collection. These participants spent a great deal of time writing and communicating with each other about their written work. They began the pilot test with enthusiasm, using Instant Update for many types of documents and anticipating many benefits. After three months of experience they rated the actual benefits they received from the software lower than they had expected. Their usage became much more refined. They continued to use it for some types of documents, but stopped for others. The collaborative writing software was used successfully to create joint documents that have a consistent format and are produced on a regular basis (such as weekly activity reports) and for documents that provide access to shared information (such as a vacation calendar). It was used less successfully for the production of documents that require a complex work flow and have a changing group of contributors. We concluded that although collaborative writing is difficult to support and the currently available collaborative writing tools need to be improved before they can meet the needs of most co-writers, they are adequate for some types of tasks. Documents that are well defined and are created by experienced users who can cooperate well can benefit from the currently available tools.