Microsoft has just launched its latest version of Microsoft Office. Like always, this new release includes a myriad of new features and functions that in reality very few people will ever use. In fact, studies of the usage of Microsoft offers suggest that more than 70% of workers only use Microsoft Office for viewing documents, or creating very simple memos.  Only a handful of users ever use the powerful formatting or analytical capabilities found in Microsoft Office. This is why some organisations, including my own, have  largely turned to more limited personal productivity solutions such as Google apps. Why pay for features that you don’t actually use?

However, Microsoft Office  2016 does possess one new feature that is very significant. In fact, I believe it is THE KILLER feature for the next decade: real-time co-authorship.

What is real-time co-authorship? It’s the ability for multiple people from multiple locations to work upon a single item of content at the same time.

That one feature is a VERY big deal. Here’s why.

It fundamentally changes how content is treated: not as a ‘document’ (a paper analogue), but as a digital item in its own right. It moves the creation of documents in organisations from a serial process of paper-pushing into a non-linear, collaborative activity.

Knowledge – be it a price list, a set work procedures, etc. – will no longer be contained in a static document.  It’s now a living, forever changing entity. Some way to understand this change is to think of the traditional office memo. In a world where multiple people can access and share a continually changing document, the idea of a memo disappears. In its place is something that looks a little bit more like a whiteboard over the water cooler.

Think of it this way: a bunch of mechanics are working on a car. In a traditional paper pushing model of document creation, all the mechanics would take a copy of the car back to their own shed, and work on it. Then each mechanic would bring their copy of the car back to the main shed, where a master mechanic would try to figure out which parts now go together. With document co-authorship, all the mechanics simply stay working on same car in the same garage. It’s a pit stop.

Google apps has offered this real-time co-authorship for almost a decade, so there is definitely evidence of how this feature is changing everything.  Some observations from my own experience and observations of clients include:

Shorter document production times: but no overall reduction of human capital input. That is, greater agility, no significant increase in productivity. When you get multiple people working on the same document at the same time, there is a lag as a document is passed from one author to another to another and then back to the main author.

Greatly improves quality. When coupled with voice or video conferencing (i.e. Microsoft Skype), greatly improves the quality of knowledge production. Ideas are rigorously debated and genuine brainstorming takes place at every point of knowledge creation.

Much less focus on formatting (presentation) and stronger focus on intellectual / evidential rigour.  In short, less time spent on style, but a lot more time on substance. This impacts mid-level management significantly.

An increasingly intimate connection with client and stakeholders.  Over time, culture changes so that clients become included in the knowledge creation process. Partnership and engagement is no longer relegated to sales and marketing. This is particularly important for organisations that are involved in planning projects with clients, such as landscapers and researchers.

Forces a rethink of document management practices. Indeed, it forces a redefinition of that term.  Expect huge tensions to emerge as these changes butt heads with compliance. It is for this reason that Microsoft has begun to implement new tools to address security, as well as archival capabilities.

In short, real-time collaborative editing coupled with personal voice and video communications will destroy the current concept of the document. While this capability has been available for years via web solutions (Google Aps and O365), bringing it to the near monopoly of Microsoft office in the enterprise is going to accelerate the change exponentially. Everyone who runs a business better get ready. Education better get ready. Just as we’ve seen the rise of the ‘connected generation’ we are about to see the rise of the ‘collaborative generation.’

For people involved in the plant industry, the rise of the collaborative generation will provide the potential for a more intimate connection with customers. For example, landscape architects could create a “living” plan for a client’s garden, with the client being able to come in and make suggestions and comment in the document in real time. Instead of waiting for the client to review and re-review plans iteratively, landscapers will be able to work with clients while the plan has been created.  

In addition, the emerging collaborative generation will be spearheaded by the so-called digital natives. One of the challenges for the horticulture industry is attracting and keeping new talent. If this new talent is expecting a collaborative working environment, rather than an old school paper pushing environment, then you’d better be prepared to have your business set up to meet their expectations.  So it is not just about using this new concept of real-time co-authorship, it’s about positioning your business for an age where collaboration both internally and externally is King.

Microsoft’s inclusion of real-time co-authorship in Microsoft Office 2016 may look like a small thing. But it has big ramifications. Get ready. Things are about to change in your office.