Real-World Collaboration in Action with SharePoint Online & Office Web Apps! (I Love It When a Plan Comes Together)

I recently had to step away from my test case – this blog project, which is a bit of a work-play thing for me – in order to actually do some real-world work. My company received an RFP from a major organization a week before the proposal was due. Because this was such a big project for a big organization, we couldn't rely on boilerplate proposals. So we had a week to put together a very comprehensive proposal from scratch.

Pre-SharePoint, we'd have been emailing revisions of the document back and forth, and version control would have been tricky at best and a total mess at worst, at a time when we couldn't afford anything but a streamlined authoring process. We took it one step further and used SharePoint Online, the Office 365 SharePoint offering, which puts everything on the cloud and allows for real-time collaborating and authoring by multiple persons simultaneously.

Office 365 officially launched last summer, and we, being the eager-beaver early adopters that we are, immediately created an Office 365 project site to help us corral some documentation pulled together by many hands for a SharePoint Saturday conference we were helping to host and organize. At the time, Office 365 wasn't quite yet ready for prime time – a lot of people who needed to access the project site weren't able to get in, and we fell back on the old nasty habits of files flying back and forth via email instead of being put in a central spot where all pertinent folks could access all the files.

This time, however, Office 365 performed admirably and helped us do the near-impossible and build a large proposal from scratch in a week. We put the document up on SharePoint Online, and up to four people could make changes to the document at once. We could see who else was in the document, which sections they were working on, and, with a refresh, we could see the changes each author had made. Everything was in real-time, and there was no lag between tweaking this or that section and having that new and improved version of the document available to all the team members working on the proposal. I had read the whitepaper we did for Microsoft about using Office 365 for collaboration, and even written a small piece showcasing a video of the co-authoring process, but watching a video of it is in no way nearly as cool as seeing it in action on a piece of work that matters to you.

Seeing it come together flawlessly and work exactly as it should work was… it was like watching magic happen and not knowing how it happened, but appreciating the trick as a feat deserving nothing less than utter wonderment. It was that "I love it when a plan comes together" moment than Hannibal from the A-Team referenced every episode. (There were fewer explosions involved in the coming together of our plan, though. More's the pity. That would have been a great way to spice up a workday.)

We discovered some quirks in the process, however, and knowing about them might serve you well should you decide to make your own co-authoring plan come together:

  1. Only four people at a time can work on a document. I'm not sure if others can view it, so you can have, say, four co-authors and two people looking at it on a read-only basis, for instance. But no matter how many pairs of eyes can look at the document at a time, only four pairs of hands can be working on it. At first, the four-person limit seems, well, limiting, but then, how many hands do you really want on your document at a time, anyway? Too many cooks spoil the broth, and too many co-authors ruin the proposal.
  2. Another user's changes will not be visible to you until they save. Likewise, nobody else will be able to see what you've done until you save your changes. Save often when co-authoring. I just got in the habit of saving every time I made a tweak.
  3. We found in a couple of instances that the document would kind of lock if one person tried to work on the same section another person had just finished with. Again, saving is the key. Whomever last made changes to that section must save it not only to make their changes visible to other users, but also to make that section editable by other users.
  4. You can either edit documents in your browser or open the document in Word, Excel, or OneNote. (We were using Word.) Office 365 doesn't play tremendously well with 64-bit browsers, and locating your 32-bit version of IE may be a bit of a trick, if you're running a 64-bit OS. Hopefully, Office 365 will soon work seamlessly with 64-bit browsers, but until then, fire up your 32-bit IE and use that for your co-authoring efforts. Dux also pointed me to a page discussing accessing data-sheet view with 64-bit browsers. While the issues I had used Word, and I think the data-sheet view probably refers to Excel, there is good knowledge in that link.
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