If you work with data, most likely you are going to have to collaborate on one file or another. If you're lucky, everyone you collaborate with will be using the same office suite. But chances are, they won't be. So that data file might pass between Microsoft Office, LibreOffice, iWork, WPS... the list goes on and on.
Because of that possible unknown, you want to work in a way that will make the collaboration process seamless and easy. I have 10 tips that will help. Although not every tip may apply to you, many of them should. Let's take a look at how you can make the collaboration process a predictable success.
1: Opt for the open standard format
Yes, you are likely using the Microsoft formats for your documents. However, they don't always follow OpenDocument Format (ODF) standards. Instead of opting for the proprietary Microsoft formats, switch over to one that's welcomed by nearly all office suites: ODF. You'll find a much more seamless collaboration process and fewer gotchas when moving between office suites. The only platform that can have a bit of trouble with this format is Android. The one Android office suite that works well with ODF is OfficeSuite 7 Pro.
2: Use comments instead of track changes
I discovered a major flaw when trying to collaborate between Google Docs and other office suites: Track changes is not even slightly supported. Should a collaborator send you a document with tracked changes, those changes will not appear. They won't affect the document in a negative way; you just won't see them.
A safer approach is to make editorial remarks as comments. With comments, you can be sure that most users will see your suggestions/questions. It may not be as efficient as track changes. But after you've sent a document to a Google Docs user and had to completely redo your edits, making use of comments doesn't seem like such a bad proposition.
3: Keep a master file
Always keep a master file you can refer back to. When collaborating with multiple users, you never know whether something might happen to that document. I like to keep a copy of the original, unedited document as a backup. Should you lose all copies of the edited version, you still have your original to go back to. Although not ideal, this is better than nothing. And keeping a master file as last-ditch backup means you can avoid possible issues that occur during the editorial process (such as a corrupt document).
4: Configure your user details
When you work as a collaborator on a document, it's important to have your user details set up in your office suite. These details will reflect in either your comments or your tracked changes. You don't want your suggestions showing up as "Unknown User." At a minimum, fill out your full name and initials in the user data section of your configuration options. This tiny step will avoid confusion and headaches during the collaboration process.
5: Edit in color
When you add your user information in the configuration of your office suite, personalize the color used for comments and changes. If each member of a collaboration team chooses a specific color, it will be much easier to tell at a glance who changed what. This may seem like an insignificant step, but it will make a difference.
6: Share in the cloud
I'm always surprised at how many users collaborate via email. This is such an inefficient way to collaborate on a project. Instead of doing this, create a cloud account that all collaborators can access and share from within. The only caveat to this sharing process is to be sure you do not overwrite another user's edits. You'll need to communicate to one another when you are working with the document. And make sure you close the document after you have sync'd it with your cloud. If you use a cloud system such as ownCloud, you can take advantage of the file-locking system to prevent anyone from opening a document you are currently editing.
7: Save editions in folders
As a novelist, I work with numerous collaborators (beta readers, editors, proofers). Rather than work from within one folder, I create TO_ and FROM_ folders for each collaborator type (so I'll have TO_BETA, FROM_BETA, TO_EDIT, FROM_EDIT, TO_PROOF, FROM_PROOF). This makes it easy to know which state the project is in. I don't have to wonder, "Is this the document that's ready to go to the proofer?" Using a specific file structure makes it easy for me to collaborate with those other users and not lose track of where the document is in its timeline.
8: Date filenames
This should be habit. If you don't use a file structure to keep tabs on the process of your collaboration, you should at least be using dates in the filenames. The last thing you want to do is revert to an old version and overwrite newer edits. Avoid this by going old school with the name and add the date. 08_19_14_FILENAME.odt will never lead to confusion. Of course, be sure to use a date format everyone understands; otherwise, you might have some collaborator who thinks the above date is out of sync with reality.
9: Password-protect files
I would like to think this shouldn't have to be said, but when you release a file to collaborators, you can't control who sees that file and who doesn't. To prevent unwanted eyes from peering into your own personal matrix, password-protect that file. Yes, you will have to hand the password out to your collaborators... but only they will be able to gain access to the file.
10: Employ antivirus
Here's another item that shouldn't have to be mentioned — but it does. If you're exchanging files with other users, you never know what's on their machines. If their machines are infected with one or more nasty viruses, you don't want to become collateral damage to their problem. Make sure every member of your collaboration team who uses the Windows platform employs antivirus. Don't take a chance on collaborating with those who don't practice safe computing.
Everyone should experience collaboration. The combined efforts of a team outperform a solo effort. But when you collaborate, do so with an eye toward efficiency, safety, and caution. Blindly jumping into the process can lead to work loss, data breaches, and time drains. Implement one or more of these suggestions and see if your collaboration process and results don't improve.
Do you collaborate? What tools allow you to do so?
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.