Since open-source office suites started gaining popularity more than a decade ago, some large organizations have been turning away from Microsoft Office.

The Italian ministry of defence’s migration of more than 120,000 PCs to the open-source LibreOffice is just the latest in a string of projects to replace Microsoft at European authorities.

However, while momentum may be gathering, these organizations remain in the minority, and businesses generally haven’t followed suit in jumping off the Microsoft Office bandwagon.

The reason for firms’ reluctance to make the switch may stem from some common perceptions of the downside of switching from Microsoft Office.

Complaints sometimes levelled at LibreOffice are that its interface is old-fashioned and that it lacks the ability to sync documents to the cloud, while others may be deterred by fears of incompatibility with Microsoft Office.

Here are lessons on how businesses can ease their transition to LibreOffice and tackle some of these criticisms, from those with years of experience working with these migration projects.

Point out issues up front

The biggest hurdle facing any project to replace line of business software will be resistance from staff who resent changes to how they work, says Italo Vignoli, one of the founders of The Document Foundation, the organization behind LibreOffice.

“The biggest challenges are psychological. Users have used a piece of software for 20 years and they react with an extremely human resistance to change,” he says.

The best way to help people deal with that change is to be up front with them about what the changes will involve and any issues they might face, months before the migration starts, says Vignoli.

“If you start telling people that ‘Something’s going to change in how we handle documents, we will train and prepare you and we have created an internal infrastructure to help you. Then people are usually willing.

“If you know there’s going to be issues, for instance with the document format, highlight those issues in advance, tell them which issues they might have, and offer them solutions.

“If users are prepared and recognize an issue, then the issue becomes a minor one, because they were already told the issue was a potential one and they know there’s a solution,” he said.

Run Microsoft Office and LibreOffice side by side

As well telling staff what to expect up front, give them time to adjust to LibreOffice by running it alongside their existing office suite, says Vignoli.

Ease staff into using LibreOffice during this “co-existence period”, he says, by providing training, information via your intranet, and making sure staff have access to resources that help them deal with any problems they encounter.

Start by persuading those at the top

Those running the migration at the Italian ministry of defence started by holding a seminar for the top ranks, explaining what the migration would achieve and how it would overlap with the organization’s goal of saving money and improving operational capabilities.

Use free documentation and help from the community

There is a lot of free documentation and community-led assistance to help you make the shift to LibreOffice.

In the case of the Italian ministry of defence, the volunteer group LibreItalia provided free assistants, who coached trainers within the ministry on how to manage the deployment of LibreOffice, who in turned tutored their colleagues.

There is also a large amount of documentation available online from The Document Foundation, including a sample testing, deployment and migration plan and a paper setting out a migration protocol. LibreItalia also recently put together 20 lessons on difference between Microsoft Office and LibreOffice that will be published under the copyleft licence and should be translated into English.

Use the migration to improve internal processes

One of the complaints sometimes raised by those migrating to LibreOffice relates to the staff no longer being able to use Microsoft Office macros.

These macros are scripts that can automate repeated tasks within Office, such as formatting data in an Excel spreadsheet.

Sonia Montegiove, is president of the LibreItalia association and has been involved with two major switches from Microsoft Office to LibreOffice in Italy.

She says an over-reliance on macros is an indication that working practices probably need to be changed.

“Often a user makes a spreadsheet to manage important processes. But macros are not correct for tackling a complex problem. For those [kind of issues] you need to find a good solution, to buy or to make software,” she says.

The migration process offers organizations a good opportunity to assess where macros are being used and to see if alternatives can be put in place, she says.

Use the Open Document Format

By choosing to save documents, spreadsheets, presentations and charts in the Open Document Format (ODF), an organization can avoid locking itself to one office suite.

Files saved as ODF can be opened by Microsoft Office – post Office 2007 Service Pack 2, LibreOffice, Apache OpenOffice and many more office suites. In Italy, ministry of defence officials instructed its users to use the ODF, in order to guarantee interoperability and access to documents.

“If defence wants to migrate to another software tomorrow [they could], because they choose ODF as the format for their documents. It’s very important. They haven’t software lock-in or vendor lock-in,” said Montegiove.

Using ODF also helps ensure interoperability between different versions of LibreOffice.

Check compatibility with in-house software

Examine your internal systems for any potential compatibility issues that may arise following the migration to LibreOffice.

In the case of the Italian military it spent about €40,000 upgrading document-management software so it could read the ODT format.

Give staff time and training to get used to the interface

One of the criticisms sometimes levelled at LibreOffice is that its interface is old-fashioned.

The interface on LibreOffice has similarities to one used in Microsoft Office 2003, before the introduction of the Ribbon menu.

This may or may not be a problem with staff, depending on how used they have become to Office’s most recent UI.

Vignoli says it’s wrong to label LibreOffice’s interface as dated and Microsoft Office’s as modern, describing the look of the two office suites as simply being different.

“It’s not a question of modern and old, that is pure marketing,” he says.

Future versions of LibreOffice should have an adaptive UI, he says, which adjusts the position of the menu bar to suit the size and shape of the screen, with the goal being to provide more usable space for editing documents.

“Our idea is that we have to provide an answer to users, not to impose anything ‘modern’ or fancy on users.”

Link LibreOffice to the cloud

One advantage that cloud-based offerings, such as Google Apps for Work, have over LibreOffice is the availability of documents on whichever device you are using.

But there are services that will let you edit LibreOffice files in a browser, sync these files between machines and easily share them with other users, says Vignoli.

Open365 provides access to a full version of LibreOffice 5.1 via the browser, also allowing users to access email, calendar and contacts using KDE Kontact. Files can be synced across devices using SeaFile and online chat and video conferencing is supported using Jitsi.

“We will never provide servers for users to run their documents on,” says Vignoli.

“On the other side we will enable service providers to provide a LibreOffice-powered online productivity office suite,” he says, adding that while the software will remain free, these services will likely be subscription-based.

This setup should allow users to swap between editing files locally on LibreOffice or in a cloud service without issue, he says.

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