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Your ability to collaborate with the right people, get good information and make the right decisions may decide if you’re thriving or barely surviving. Tapping away on a spreadsheet by yourself late at night and then emailing it around for feedback is 15 years too slow. Online, real-time collaboration is here and it’s a tool you should use.

We’re all familiar with the benefits of spreadsheets generally. Using formulas, we can create simple or complex financial analysis and reporting tools, customised to each situation. Online spreadsheets add new levels of value.

Since 2005, web 2.0 technologies such as AJAX have allowed a new generation of spreadsheets to emerge.  An online spreadsheet is a document edited through a web-based application that allow multiple persons to edit and share it simultaneously. Instead of having the information in a single file on one persons computer, the file is now a single, live document in the ‘cloud’, which is a term used to describe software or information which lives on the Internet.

Here is how it works. You create the spreadsheet, then invite your collaborators via email. Now both can view and edit that particular spreadsheet. What’s great is that each of you is assigned a color, and your cursor will appear on its cell on your screen as your color (usually green or blue), and the other person as a different color (blue, red, etc). You can actually see the other person’s cursor move from one location to another as he navigates through the spreadsheet. So it really feels like both of you are editing the same thing in real time – which you are.

Real Time Collaboration

If your situation is complex or requires data and input from multiple people, then online spreadsheets can save time and mistakes. Instead of each person making their own version and trying to merge or compare them, everyone can work from the one master document at the same time. No more pass-the-parcel on files.

Transparency

We’ve found using online spreadsheets a great way to encourage transparency and openness when working with another company on a deal. We put the information into a private, but shared online document and then both parties can be looking at the same information at once, without fear that there is something being hidden.

One Source of Truth

One of the biggest challenges with spreadsheets is version control. We end up with files being called “Annual Budget – The real final one – version 3 by Mary” but still we don’t know for sure. Online spreadsheets are only one file. Though it’s still possible to create duplicate copies of the files or the individual sheets, it is typically easier to manage than offline files.

Presentation Via Spreadsheet

We’re seeing a lot more use of online spreadsheets in remote presentations. It allows both parties to control a pointer to show what they want to look at, and allows real time changes of information to see ‘what if’ scenarios.

Forms

One of the cool new features some online spreadsheets bring is the ability to use form to generate spreadsheets. Basically you create a simple form (questions, multiple choice, scales) and then you get a web address through which you invite people to fill it out. The information goes automatically into an online spreadsheet. It’s very simple, and very powerful.

Things to Think About

Structure

You do need to think about what you’re going to use the spreadsheet for, who’s going to see it and how it might evolve. It’s no longer the private napkin where you’re collecting your thoughts, it’s in public view. This can often require standardizing how a team or company works in spreadsheets since everyone has a different approach to how they set out and use them. Different structures, formulas and formatting can make someone else’s spreadsheet a mystery. Over time, you’ll develop one approach. Try to have a variables page so that if someone wants to create their own version to play with, they can use a single set of variables. Though, that’s maybe what they want to play with.

Security

People typically worry that having information in the cloud is risky. With emailing a full document just one click away, the risks are similar but perhaps lacking as good a paper trail. Most good online tools have private, public and secret options. Private means it’s invite only. Public means that people can possibly find it through search engines or tools. Secret means that it’s not searchable, but anyone with the URL can access it. Like all things, if managed well, the risks are low. Just be mindful to check important spreadsheets regularly to see who has access. The employee who just left to a competitor might still be looking.

Lost Functionality And Speed

I’ll be the first to admit that you do lose some functionality by going online. If you’ve lived in Excel for 20 years like me, then you’ll know just how to make it purr how you want it to. All the formulas, big files, adjusting zoom size and formatting are all a bit limited online. It’s a trade off, but well worth it at times. It’s also going to be a little slower, which brings us to the big one – internet connectivity.

Offline

Obviously if you’re offline, then you can’t get to your files. This is a big issue for a lot of people, but less so in this always-on world of ours. You certainly get used to it, and I can say now that it very rarely causes an issue. I either get online, or I do without. Some technology is coming to fix this, with offline modes available. You can also always export to a PDF or Excel file for backup.

Cost

Most of these applications are free to try, with an annual subscription fee based on how many users and how much data you have, typically from $30 to $50 per user per year. Compared to normal spreadsheet software, it’s typically extremely cost effective.

Recommended Online Spreadsheet Tools

If you’re a big Google user (gmail, gcal, etc) then it’s hard to go past Google docs (http://docs.google.com). It’s cheap, powerful, reliable, includes forms, word processing, presentations and an offline mode is coming. The nimble, new kid on the block is Zoho (http://zoho.com/) with a full suite of applications and a good track record for looking after their customers. They also are very open, allowing for use of their API’s by other supporting applications, such as LinkedIn. Microsoft have been slow off the block in this space, but have a growing offering called Skydrive (http://skydrive.live.com). A full list is available here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Online_spreadsheet

This is not for everyone and it’s not for every situation, but it’s a tool that’s not going to go away, so I highly recommend trialing online spreadsheets. I’ve added some public spreadsheets to this page so you can play in a safe ‘sandbox’.

Basic Spreadsheet

Planning Spreadsheet (marketing operations planner)

Forms: The form The spreadsheet

Thanks to Radish for his support writing this article.

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