Collaboration – sharing information in different ways with colleagues, customers and suppliers – is one of the great attractions of cloud computing and has already started to reinvent how people work together.
Microsoft promises that collaboration is a central goal of its cloud productivity suite Office 365, but it has taken a different approach to co-authoring documents, one of the key pillars of collaboration.
Google Apps allows co-editing where two or more people can edit the exact same part of a document or spreadsheet. Microsoft allows users to co-author the same document, however they cannot edit the same paragraph. And unlike Google Docs, users do not see live updates from other users.
In its research Microsoft found that having multiple real-time edits happening on the one page was very distracting. Instead, co-authoring in Office 365 automatically locks the paragraph on which a user is working. Co-authoring users see updates only when the document is saved back to Office 365.
Many of the Office 2010 applications such as Word natively support co-authoring. This means multiple people can open Office documents via the desktop applications and work on them concurrently. This is all supported by default and when multiple people are working on a document each user receives notification of who is working on the document.
Once a document is refreshed, users will see parts of the document highlighted to show edits by others. A user can give exclusive access to a document by “checking it out”, a metaphor similar to borrowing a book from a library. Other users can only edit the document once it has been checked in again.
There are some limitations when it comes to co-authoring in Office 365. For example, it is currently not possible to co-author Excel spreadsheets on the desktop but it is through Office Web Apps. The reason is that Excel recalculates every time a user enters information which could change values throughout the spreadsheet.
The Office Web Apps version of Excel does not yet have all the features of the desktop edition but it does allow co-authoring. It is expected that all Office applications will support full co-authoring in future.
For more detailed information about Microsoft Office co-authoring take a look at this article from Microsoft.
Small businesses have access to a major tool for collaboration in Office 365. The server version of SharePoint is normally too expensive to buy and install for many small businesses, yet Office 365 includes SharePoint Online for a low monthly fee.
SharePoint Online is a document management platform with features developed for the corporate world. It controls the document “check out” process and document approval, which hides documents from users until they have been “approved”.
SharePoint Online also supports basic version control. This means that a new version is created upon each document save, allowing users to roll back to previous versions if required. The version history is stored within the SharePoint Online directory rather than within the document itself, like in Google Apps.
All versions of Office 365 give users the ability to view documents saved in SharePoint Online via a web browser using Office Web Apps, which are very basic versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. The more expensive Office 365 enterprise licences also let users edit documents via a browser.
Another feature is the ability to take documents offline via a dedicated application like SharePoint Workspace or even Outlook. This is one area where Office 365 trumps Google Apps, which is not able to let users work offline.
Microsoft Office – the desktop version
To get the greatest benefit from Office 365’s collaboration features you need to have the latest version of the Office suite installed on the desktop. Microsoft includes the desktop version of Office with the E3 and E4 subscription plans for Office 365.
It is certainly possible to collaborate using older versions of Office but not all Office 365 features will be available. If you really want to be productive then upgrading to the latest version is highly recommended.
One application that hasn’t been as widely utilised in the Office suite is OneNote. This is a digital notebook that, when saved onto a SharePoint Online site, allows full collaboration and information sharing.
Instead of sending emails backwards and forwards with information it all gets saved into a OneNote notebook that can be accessed anywhere internet access is available. When internet access isn’t available the local copy of OneNote can continue to be updated and then synchronised later. OneNote comes as standard in all Office 2010 suites.
Robert Crane is the Principal of CIAOPS, a Sydney based consultancy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org