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TechSoup Battles: the Document Collaboration Challenge

Document ManagementCollaboration

Are you new to TechSoup Battles? Check out our intro and our previous challenges.

Are you tired of sharing files back and forth with “track changes” and file names that just keep getting longer and longer? In the past, sending documents back and forth with edits was the main way to collaborate on a document with someone else - unless you had a document management tool like SharePoint, or could sit together in the same room.

The good news is that now there are more options available and they are more collaborative - but since many nonprofits aren’t aware of them, we decided to make this the focus of our third challenge. Go straight to the results or read on to find out how we picked our tools for this challenge.

What is document collaboration?

Before I dive in, I had to ask myself the question: what do I mean by “document collaboration”? To me, this means that two or more people need to be involved in creating a document in some way - whether they are actually writing the document together, or one is a reviewer/commenter. Here’s a few angles of document collaboration to consider, which will impact the tool you are looking for:

  • Workflow: How formal is your collaboration process? It could be anything from a structured process with a defined order of contributors/reviewers with the document locked down while someone is working on it, to everyone going in whenever they want to make changes.
  • Version control: This can be done manually by changing the file name (e.g. “mydoc-v1”, “mydoc-v2”), or it can be handled automatically by a tool such as Sharepoint or Google Docs.
  • Meetings & discussion: In the process of document collaboration you may have suggestions or feedback that require discussion, or you may even want to have a meeting about the document. It’s helpful to have the capability for comments, discussions and online meetings within the tool or in another tool that is integrated.
  • Location: The people collaborating on the document might be sitting next to each other in the same room (as Jane and I often are), or across the world. A flexible tool will support both scenarios, though your process might be a bit different.
  • Document type: The most common document types that people use are text documents (word processing), spreadsheets and presentations. Other types of documents include images, mind maps, posters/graphics, flowcharts, etc. Different tools are intended for different types of documents.

Ask the Experts and the Community

As always, I started off by visiting our usual suspects to see what they had to say about document collaboration. The answer was: surprisingly little, though I did find this broader look at collaboration software by Idealware and an in-depth look at presentation tools (one specific type of document to collaborate on) from Platformation.

So, it was time to see what the community had to say. This proved to be more promising; here were some of the good recommendations we got: (many of which were also mentioned last year when we asked you for ideas of tools for collaborating and working remotely)

Jason Santo suggests Google Docs Jason Shim suggests Google Docs, or Basecamp for managing document versions Cristopher suggests Evernote

Other suggestions: Here is the article that Cristopher mentioned, it suggests Evernote, Google Docs, MindMeister (mind mapping), Trello and WordPress and even has some video demos. I also wanted to mention Titanpad, which is great for working on a document when you need everyone to jump in quickly and just need basic features (e.g. taking group notes at a conference).

In short, it seems that no one quite agrees on what document collaboration is and therefore have a lot of different ideas of tools might be helpful - probably due to all the angles I discussed. After much arguing (TechSoup Battles style), we decided to focus on the scenario of writing a document with two editors that must both contribute and comment on each others’ work.

The results

The tools we settled on for this challenge are Google Docs and OneDrive + Microsoft Office. Surprised by our choice? Take a look at more more in-depth reviews for Google Docs and OneDrive + MS Office to find out why.

Jane reviews OneDrive + Microsoft Office

Tierney reviews Google Docs


OneDrive gives you 7GB for free. If you need more storage it costs $25 USD/year for an additional 50 GB.

MS Office is available to qualified organizations through our donations program, through Microsoft’s charity pricing, or retail for about $250-470.

Free. If you are using it as part of Google Apps with more than 10 users, it will cost $50/user/year.
Quick description You have the option to work on documents online with Web Apps (you don’t need MS Office, but it has less features), or in MS Office on your desktop. Either will work as long as the document is saved in SkyDrive and shared with your collaborator(s). In either scenario, you will see the other person’s changes when you save the document. You edit your documents in Google’s online application. Updates happen in real time, so you will be able to see others’ changes as they type.
Might be a good fit if... You want to collaborate in MS Office because it is familiar (no learning curve), or because you want the additional features that aren’t available in Google Docs (e.g. fancy formatting, more advanced Excel features). You want to have truly real time collaboration; you like the simple Google Docs interface; you want to be integrated with other Google products.

What are your thoughts? Let us know what you think of our document collaboration challenge (do you have more experiences/insights to share? other tools to recommend?), and what tools you recommend for our next challenge on file sharing. Share your thoughts on Facebook, Twitter (#TechSoupBattles), below in the comments or send us an email. Thanks to everyone who has shared thoughts & ideas so far!