Update: March 1, 2017
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. This page has the reality in mind.
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 LibreOffice,
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
Word-processing and documents for publication:
- 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).
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 good two-page primer that can get you thinking about sharing
information online, and working together on files: Collaborative
Writing, from jiscinvolve.org. There's also this
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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!
- Sharing Your Work With Volunteers (and
Others) Online, which reviews how (and why) to share your work
-- your calendar, files, databases, online polls, and more, with
volunteers, remote staff and other groups as part of your work for a
nonprofit/NGOs/civil society organization.
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