Revised with new information November 11, 2013

How People Remote From Each Other
Can Work on the Same File
Without Cloud Computing
Not everyone has consistent, all-the-time, anywhere access to the Internet - even in the USA.

Working together on documents, spread sheets and presentations

Unless your organization has a policy that everyone must use the same office suite of software - and pays the costs of everyone to use that software - you cannot assume everyone you are working with remotely uses Microsoft. But the good news is that a person using an alternative office suite, such as OpenOffice or NeoOffice, can view and edit Microsoft files, and vice-versa - so long as everyone saves their files into basic versions of their software, rather than the version that just came out a few months ago.

If everyone has the same presentation on their computer, then a conference call is all you need to walk all of these remote people through the presentation and gather their feedback -- and a conference call is still cheaper than specialized collaboration software.

The key to working together collaboratively online isn't your computer technology or your budget; it's how the other humans you are trying to work with save, share and respond to information and requests for feedback. It's mostly about trust-building, good organization and good management.

Word-processing and documents for publication:

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

  2. For first drafts of documents, when the most important task is agreeing on basic text, save the document in a "low" version (you can find this under "Save as"), before you distribute the document to others. You can also save the document as an .rtf (rich text format) file; this will allow the document to be read by just about any word-processing software.

  3. Many word-processing software are cross-platform, meaning that everyone has the same edit features, which cause text changes to the document to be in a different color than the original. Otherwise, reviewers can put their changes in double brackets [[edits]], to make the changes easy to find.

  4. 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.

  5. Ofcourse, 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 or font style than the rest of the text (so long as they know HTML).

Here's a TERRIFIC primer that can get you thinking about sharing information online, and working together on files: Collaborative Writing, from Web2practice: Emergent technologies and innovative practice. Each guide consists of a short animated video explaining the key concepts, supported by a more in-depth printable overview of the topic, covering the potential uses, risks and how to get started. The guides and the resources used to create them can be downloaded, modified and shared under a creative commons license.

Database sharing:

  1. Everyone needs to have the same field names for data they are going to share. For instance, one person shouldn't call a field "first_name" and another person call the same field "firstname". Get uniformity in all field names to make data sharing easier.

  2. Agree which fields of information will be shared and which will not . All staff should not have access to, for instance, the names and addresses of an organization's donors, or salary data for staff.

  3. A database design can be shared via screen captures, if different people and organizations don't have the same software (but probably, you aren't sharing database designs but, rather, DATA).

  4. Have a way to identify what data came from which organizations, departments or offices. Each individual record should have a field that tells the person or organizations from which the data in that record (name, address, phone number, etc.) came from.

  5. Follow the guidelines outlined in Importing Information Into A Database

You can share files as attachments to email, but you run the risk of such emails being blocked by junk mail filters.  

Ultimately, no matter what method you use to share information and solicit feedback, trust and participation will make or break the system: everyone involved in the process should feel that you can be trusted you to hear and value their feedback, they must quickly and easily "see" the value of their participation, and they must see the results of the time and energy they spend in reviewing information and providing feedback. No software in the world can build trust or guarentee participation; only the way you respond and relate to others, and your own commitment, can do this.

Do you have other tips for working on documents remotely, without having to purchase special software? Send me your suggestions!

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