SharePoint vs. Google Docs for Impromptu Collaborative Editing

Fred LutzMy father-in-law Fred Lutz died in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. He had been in declining health due to pulmonary fibrosis, and we knew that it was coming, we just didn’t know how soon. We’re all in a bit of shock around here.

Part of what I can offer to the family during this time (or any other) is my in-house IT expertise (I can also carry stuff around and give hugs, but those aren’t germane to this post). On Wednesday, seeing that my wife and sister were struggling with writing the obituary and with the deadline for the paper looming, I also offered to help with that. As I was writing it out, synthesizing what the two of them had come up with so far with my mother-in-law, I realized that this was a perfect opportunity to use a real-time collaborative editing tool. At the time, my wife was at our house and her sister and mother were 50 miles way near Providence, RI. Emailng the obituary around was too disjointed and talking on the phone they couldn’t see each others’ notes.

I immediately thought of SharePoint, of course. I started thinking how I could type the notes into a document and upload it to a Document Library. That would get the file into one place, but the co-editing thing was a little harder to get my head around. I have several instances of SharePoint kicking around: a WSS 3.0 site I use for my Sympraxis Consulting Web site (yeah, I know – I’m working on it) and for developing SPServices, an Office 365 -based instance that I’ll eventually move the WSS stuff to, and an Office 365 Preview site for SharePoint 2013. None of them seemed like they would help with exactly what I wanted. I wasn’t sure if Office Web Apps were installed on the latter two, and figuring that out seemed like it would distract me from my task at hand.

Google DriveSo what did I do? I opened up a browser and fired up Google Docs. Apparently they’ve renamed it Google Drive somewhere along the way, and it required a small download. I did that, and within about three minutes, I had a nice, clean, easy interface where I could paste in text from the obituary. I did that and sent emails to my wife and sister-in-law to share it with them in about another three minutes. Without any instruction from me at all, the two of them were co-editing as soon as they noticed the email. Note that neither of them had ever done this before; it just made sense to them right away. And they were using a laptop and an iPad.

Keep in mind here that I’m the IT department in this story as well as one of the end users. I was the guy who asked the IT department for a solution and I’m also the guy who answered the question. In an organization of any decent size, the end user would attempt to get in touch with someone in the IT organization, usually through some sort of help desk or email address. They might get an answer back in an hour or two if they were lucky, someone would set up a meeting for sometime next week to discuss things, etc.

Now put yourself in the shoes of that user. Say it’s a lawyer in the Legal Department or a purchaser in Merchandising. They have to work on a document like a contract or a purchase order with someone across town or in Sri Lanka (once you’re more than a building or two away, it might as well be Sri Lanka) and they have to do it now. If they know the drill in their organization, are they going to bother with that help desk or email address? Most likely not. They will do what I did: go to the easiest thing they’ve heard people talk about to get it done. It might be Google Drive or it might be something else, but they probably won’t stick around inside the firewall unless it’s really easy.

So what’s the point of all of this? Well, people will go to the easiest solution if they have any choice at all. It’s in our nature. We avoid the hard path, because we’re lazy, or unaware, or whatever, but it’s what we tend to do. If there’s a rule against going outside the firewall – yes, governance – then maybe people will follow it, but most likely not just-this-one-time-because-it’s-an-exception. Then the horse is out of the barn; you may hove lost them for the next time and all of the future next times as well. The buzz phrase for this is the “consumerization of IT”. Call it what you want, but it’s real. The stuff that’s out there for free is often better than what you in IT can offer now.

So what can you do about it? Predict the needs of your users. Offer stuff like this on top of SharePoint as a well-publicized service. Don’t sit back and talk about the lack of budget or the challenges in training people. Make it happen when people need it. Period. Or else you re going to lose your content to the Internet and the easiest, cheapest tools out there. I wanted to use SharePoint, I really did, and I know how to do it, for gosh sakes, yet even I went with the easy answer.

Yes, even in sadness, things come around to collboration for me. It’s all a part of life. We’ll miss you, Fred.