Making MS Office more collaborative

Despite the availability of online document creation tools (like those found in Google Apps) or even free alternatives like OpenOffice, the Microsoft Office suite remains the gold standard as far as basic business applications are concerned. It would be a safe bet to say that most business users exclusively use MS Word, Excel, and Powerpoint despite there being other options. However, one area where traditional desktop-based suites like MS Office have lagged behind is document collaboration from the desktop.

Collaborative features in MS OfficeWhile older versions of Microsoft Office (Office 2003 and 2007) had a minimalistic set of collaborative features, the newest versions – Office 2010 and Office 2013 offer excellent collaboration and sharing out of the box. In fact, with Office 2013, there’s no real reason for you to look outside for collaborative features. In case you’re wondering what this latest version of Office brings to the table, some of more collaboration-focused features include:

  • Co-authoring support has been extended to Visio, the Word web app, and the Powerpoint web app
  • Better change-tracking when collaborating on a document
  • Easy sharing and editing permissions using the ‘Share to People’ feature- Real-time editing

For a full list of the new features Microsoft is hoping to woo IT bosses with, head over to http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/dd188670(v=office.15).aspx. However, with most organizations still running – and planning on sticking with – older variants that sometimes lack features, how can shared access and collaboration be improved?

Google Cloud Connect

Google Apps might have become the IT admin’s go-to service for E-mail and collaboration but the online office suite has failed to pick up fans despite its emphasis on collaboration and sharing. To begin with, the web interface Google provides is just not as responsive as Office on the desktop. Sealing the deal in Microsoft’s favour is that most end users are likely to be quite comfortable with the way MS Office works and might find Google Apps rather unfamiliar.

Luckily, there’s a way for admins to provide Google Apps’ sharing and collaborative features without requiring users to leave their desktops. Google’s Cloud Connect service (tools.google.com/dlpage/cloudconnect) lets you leverage the collaborative power of Google Apps right from your desktop office suite by installing a plugin. Some features of Google Cloud Connect include:

  • Automatic backup of MS Office documents to Google Docs (or Google Drive)
  • Automatic syncing between multiple PCs
  • Collaborative editing and revision history- Sharing options for online publishing of documents

Google Cloud Connect is best used by organizations using MS Office 2003 and 2007; for users of the latest versions of Microsoft’s suite, the in-built collaborative features offer greater ease-of-use.

Office 365 & Lync

Office 365, the Redmond-based giant’s answer to Google Docs, is a subscription-based service that offers easy integration with the latest versions of Office. Users of Office 2010 and 2013 can use Office 365 for online storage and collaboration from the desktop. Office 365 access is also baked into Windows Phone, while RIM offers its Business Cloud Service that hooks into Office 365.

Microsoft Lync 2013 (http://lync.microsoft.com/en-us/Pages/Lync-2013-Preview.aspx), with its business-focused cloud access and in-built Office and Active Dire
ctory integration might be perfect for some organizations – it offers a lot more than just document collaboration. Lync Online (http://www.microsoft.com/en-us
/office365/lync-online.aspx
), the latest iteration of the Lync service, is also available as part of the Office 365 Enterprise package.

Microsoft SharePoint

Microsoft’s all-encompassing collaborative solution, SharePoint (sharepoint.microsoft.com) offers a lot more than just document sharing and collaboration: Other features include shared calendars, and collaborative project management and Visual Studio development. However, SharePoint’s ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ nature lends itself to criticism about a bloated featureset that requires a lot of effort to implement.

However, if SharePoint is a part of your IT roadmap, it does offer a comprehensive workflow and document management system: A desktop client – Sharepoint Workspace (http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ee649102.aspx ) – is also included in Office Professional Plus 2010 and provides real-time synchronization of content between your PC and the Sharepoint server. Office 365 users can also connect using SharePoint Online (http://sharepoint.microsoft.com/en-us/sharepoint-online/pages/default.aspx).

Online Drives

Online drives and file storage solutions like DropBox (www.dropbox.com), and Box.Net (www.box.net) have picked up in popularity the last few years. While some people use these solutions for simple sharing, it is possible to integrate them into your document collaboration workflow thanks to documents collaboration-specific features – the services mentioned here have all expanded into full-fledged collaboration with features like document locking:

  • SkyDrive: Microsoft’s cloud storage solution (skydrive.live.com) is integrated into Office 2010 and 2013: Users can co-create and edit documents (at the same time) right from your desktop suite – using features such as version history. If you’re using an older version of Office, real-time collaboration is not possible, but shared access can be implemented via the SkyDrive desktop client.
  • DropBox: Perhaps the most popular online sync service, DropBox can also be used for MS Office collaboration as it lets you share folders with other DropBox users. You can also sync your DropBox documents with Google Docs, allowing for better collaboration.
  • Box.net: Box.net offers advanced document collaboration features like desktop sync, online editing, version history, and password-protected sharing.

Jive

Jive Software’s Microsoft integration brings ‘social’ features to MS Office (http://www.jivesoftware.com/social-business/platform/features/microsoft), allowing real-time collaborative editing and creation. It might be worth mentioning that Jive have also acquired collaboration specialists OffiSync Corporation.

Harmon.ie

Outlook remains the mail client of choice for many organizations. However, it doesn’t offer advanced out-of-the-box collaborative features that power users would want. You can get around this by using the Harmon.ie (www.harmon.ie) plugin for MS Office collaboration (via SharePoint).

GoDocSync

The GoDocSync plugin (www.godocsync.com) for MS Office provides shared access to your documents via Google Apps. This integrates into y our MS Office install and offers features like file sync, search, multiple accounts, and advanced sharing.

About Niraj

Niraj is the Founder of GrexIt. GrexIt turns Gmail into a powerful collaboration tool by letting you share your Gmail labels. When not working at GrexIt on programming or customer support, Niraj likes to play guitar. Niraj can be reached on Twitter at nirajr.
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