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Home   >Best Practices

Top Reasons to Avoid Google Docs When Collaborating With External Users

February 13, 2024

For many users, Google Docs has changed how they work on documents. Unlike traditional desktop-based word processing software, Google Docs is a web-based platform that stores its data in the cloud. Drafting can happen from any supported device, wherever the user happens to be. The real-time editing features enable users to share their documents with whomever they wish and permit those individuals to monitor and contribute to the documents however they want, whenever they want. This is particularly helpful within organizations where colleagues frequently create shared Google Docs for real-time authoring and revisions. 

However, this convenience comes with its own set of challenges, as highlighted in a 2022 Wall Street Journal article, “The Five Most Dreaded Words at the Office: ‘Let’s Start a Google Doc’”. While employees appreciate the immediacy of real-time review and authoring with their coworkers, they also dread it. As the Journal points out, many grapple with issues of performance anxiety and miscommunication, especially when working with their superiors or senior peers on shared documents:

“The workplace ritual tends to go something like this: You’re minding your own business, trying to write a proposal [in Google Docs] …  when the mood shifts. A small circle materializes near the top of the screen. The avatar belongs to a colleague, or worse, your boss … The cursor starts flashing. Questions abound: What are this person’s intentions? Will they scroll down far enough to see the garbled notes at the bottom that you haven’t deleted? Why on earth are they online at 1 a.m. on a Saturday?”

One can see this anxiety growing amongst employees as their organizations consider Google Docs to support collaborations with external stakeholders, such as collaborations on agreements, contracts, and the like. For one, the stakes in these interactions are higher. It’s one thing for your immediate supervisor to see errors and omissions in the document you’re drafting, quite another to consider the impact of having an individual outside your organization—with whom you’re trying to build trust and confidence—watch that messy drafting and editing process in real-time.  

Moreover, in external collaborations, given that each participating party maintains its organizational identity and goals, it is imperative to preserve a bit of operational security. In consulting or sales situations, it rarely makes sense for clients to observe as ideas are formulated and refined in real-time.  When working with new vendors or suppliers, it is not sensible to allow them to have insight into your negotiation strategies as they are being developed. While some contract documents may warrant some transparency, most teams would balk at the radical levels of transparency real-time editing facilitates.   

And then there’s always the potential for inadvertent or accidental data disclosures.  The Wall Street Journal article describes a couple of moments of oversight, such as the product manager who accidentally shares a proposal meant for one company with their competitor.  Or the employee who entered confidential details of a new job offer into the document that their boss (and several senior executives) were reviewing. 

Google Docs is a terrific, and some might say, groundbreaking product. Many of the things that make it an awesome tool for document collaboration with internal stakeholders—the co-authoring, real-time editing, the ease of sharing​​—are the same things that make it a questionable choice for external collaborations.  There are numerous questions and concerns about privacy, professionalism, and the protection of sensitive information. Organizations must navigate these concerns carefully to leverage the benefits of real-time collaboration without compromising security or discretion.

Top Reasons to Avoid Google Docs when Collaborating with External Stakeholders

TakeTurns is an alternative to Google Docs for your external collaborations

There are a variety of reasons to avoid the use of platforms like Google Docs when collaborating on documents and files with external stakeholders.  It all boils down to the fact that the team of people from your external stakeholder is not part of your organization. Lacking is an implicit trust that acts as a shock absorber when things go awry.  Also, almost all external collaborations are business-critical, meaning the stakes for mistakes are much higher.

Some of the reasons why you should avoid Google Docs when collaborating with external stakeholders include:  

  • Different Levels of Trust: The transparency of real-time editing, while beneficial for internal collaboration, exposes your processes and thinking to external scrutiny, increasing the risk of misinterpretation and potential misuse by parties with inherently different objectives.
  • Communication & Misunderstanding: The absence of shared work habits and cultural understanding can lead to significant miscommunications, with the platform's reliance on text exacerbating the potential for conflict.
  • Professionalism: Google Docs’ iterative nature may inadvertently reveal the messiness of the creative process, potentially compromising the professional image you wish to maintain in front of external stakeholders.
  • Versioning: Effective version control is crucial not just for tracking edits but for safeguarding the integrity of documents—a complex task when managing inputs from multiple external sources.
  • Security, Privacy, & Compliance: The shared nature of Google Docs amplifies concerns around data protection, privacy, and compliance with industry regulations, necessitating stringent control measures.
  • Interoperability Challenges: Often, external stakeholders will not have the ability or permission to use Google Docs.  This could be because of a policy, regulation, infosec rules or something mundane—the organization elected to standardize on Microsoft 365.

Let’s explore each of these concerns.

Different Levels of Trust

The real-time editing feature, the best feature of Google Docs, allows for dynamic, simultaneous contributions from multiple users. This can be invaluable for internal teams within a single organization, where a baseline of mutual trust and shared objectives exists. However, when this feature is extended to collaborations with external stakeholders, that real-time editing transparency can be a vulnerability. 

It all goes back to trust dynamics. Internally, team members may (ahem, should) have established rapport and understanding, mitigating the risks associated with visible, real-time drafting and editing. You're more formal and guarded with people outside your organization–partners, clients, or suppliers– specific agreements and understandings define the organizational relationship. 

The transparency, which real-time editing opens up, enables your counterparty to see every edit, suggestion, and revision in the Google doc while you work.  It can expose your team’s thought process and negotiation tactics, inadvertently revealing strategic intent or highlighting uncertainties, potentially weakening a party's negotiating position or exposing them to judgment and critique prematurely.

Communication & Misunderstanding

The built-in commenting and suggestion features of Google Docs help internal teams provide feedback in the context of the document. And the ability to add emoji reactions can help reduce miscommunication.  However, comments can be problematic (or downright perplexing!) when collaborating with external stakeholders. On one hand, it enables detailed feedback fostering an exchange of ideas. On the other, it’s a significant vector for miscommunication and misunderstanding, amplified by the absence of non-verbal cues and the lack of any preexisting personal relationships. While your colleagues may claim to enjoy your dry sophisticated wit, it may be offputting for others.  

Using the commeting features in document collaboration tools can be a problematic (or perplexing) experience for your external stakeholders

What could be intended as constructive feedback can come across as criticism due to unfamiliarity with communication style or tone. Also, the asynchronous nature of commenting can lead to delays in addressing misunderstandings, allowing misconceptions to ossify or emotional responses to escalate. The lack of personal relationships could inhibit your counterparty from reaching out (e.g., calling, chatting, etc). The comments might sit for quite a while before being addressed. During this time, stakeholders may develop concerns or grievances based on their initial interpretations. 

One last comment, it is worth noting that the ambiguous comment is a negotiation tactic for some parties. Leaving the comment a bit mysterious can lead the other party to commit to a specific course of action based on what they assume the other party wants or means. This is one reason why it’s always worth asking clarifying questions when confronted with a vague comment. 


As we mentioned above, the real-time editing feature in Google Docs can inadvertently reveal the drafting process, including strategic thoughts and unpolished ideas. While that’s bad for the organization, for the individual, this level of transparency can create risks to their professional reputation, especially in external collaborations where impressions matter significantly.

Traditionally, teams exchange document versions that, while not yet agreed upon, represent their finalized position at that stage. Google Docs changes this dynamic, allowing external parties to witness the evolution of ideas, including provisional thoughts and internal annotations meant to guide the drafting process. Such exposure can lead to misinterpretations about a team's thoroughness and attention to detail. To misquote Bismark: “Professional documents are like sausage, it is best not to see it being made.”

Don't risk your professional reputation by letting others watch you craft documents in real-time.

The risk extends beyond mere perception. If external collaborators access the document during its formative stages, they might question the professionalism and diligence of your team based on the unfinished content they observe. It underscores the importance of managing how and when content is shared, ensuring that external stakeholders see only the most polished and considered version of your work.


In the context of external collaboration, versioning refers to the practice of sharing a document at a specific, identifiable stage of completion, representing a finalization point for review and feedback. We advance through the versions until we reach a mutually agreed-upon final version.  In external collaborations, we could sort the versions into two broad categories: 

Two kinds of versions drive external collaborations: individual party versions and milestone versions

  • Individual Party Versions: These represent specific iterations of the document created and shared by either party for review and feedback. Each version reflects a distinct completion point within the collaboration process, allowing focused feedback and clear communication of intended states. These can include drafts, revised iterations incorporating feedback, or specific sections shared for targeted input.
  • Milestone Versions: These represent key checkpoints or agreed-upon stages of completion established by both parties. They typically mark significant progress, incorporate feedback from individual versions, and serve as reference points for further collaboration or decision-making. These might be labeled and documented more formally than individual versions.

Google Docs provides version history. It’s a log of every single change made to the document by any permitted participant. While it’s valuable for tracking edits, it’s not versioning. For example, the ability to revert changes to any prior point in history can erase edits that represent forward steps in the negotiation or drafting process. File history is a log, so sifting through every single change to locate specific amendments can be daunting. More problematic, the ability to see all historical changes, including potentially sensitive edits that were later discarded, can inadvertently expose strategic adjustments or considerations not meant for viewing by the counterparty. 

Security, Privacy, & Compliance

Google Docs has a couple of features that make it terrific for internal collaboration. The sharing tools allow the user to quickly invite anyone (by email or URL) to view, suggest, or edit their document. In fact, by default Google Docs is often configured to allow access by anyone in the organization; if not, the sharing functions automatically resolve the permissions. The easy-to-use sharing tools help remove roadblocks to information dissemination and internal collaboration.  The issue, when we look at external collaborations, is that they typically operate on a need-to-know basis. Or, the participants from each party are restricted to named individuals, ideally to simplify the process of reaching agreement. After all, enabling anyone in either organization to access the documents might lead to a “too many chefs” problem.

Setting aside the practical issues, there are larger policy and cross-organizational issues that call into question the use of Google Docs in external collaborations. Depending on how a Google Doc was configured by your counterparty, there could be default permissions that allow access by all the people in their organization. Again, that kind of behavior is terrific for internal collaborations, less so for external collaborations where you wish to lock down the number of people on a need-to-know basis.  The easy-to-use sharing (including link sharing) can sometimes lead to inadvertent disclosures. 

From a technological perspective, Google Docs (like all collaboration tools) boasts various security features like data encryption, access controls, and activity logs.  These technological defenses help prevent malicious attacks such as hacking. However, given that insiders are a significant source of risk, organizations invest time and resources into designing the appropriate policies, controls, and security awareness training programs.  All those elements work in concert to defend the organization. 

The issue arises when we start to collaborate externally. What’s the cybersecurity posture of your counterparty? Are they as committed to security and privacy as our organization? How (if at all) can we hold them accountable in the event of a breach or lapse? Unlike individuals inside the organization, the level of control and accountability is limited when dealing with participants outside our organizations. There is also the very real possibility that the policies and regulations your organization must comply with may not be the same as those your counterparty must adhere to. 

Interoperability Challenges

While cloud-based solutions have become quite popular, it’s worth noting that not every single company has adopted cloud-based solutions. In fact, recent research has shown while 61% of deployments of office automation software are cloud-based, about 39% are on-premises. Setting aside deployment architecture, it’s also possible that organizations who have decided to use the cloud have elected not to use Google Docs.  For example, market share research from 2024 found the three leading purveyors of office automation software were: Google (44%), Microsoft (30%), and “others” (26%). This means that there’s a 1:4 to 1:3 chance that your counterparty is not using Google Docs. 

There are a whole host of reasons why organizations choose to use (or not use) Google Docs. These could range from issues around security and data privacy, regulation, internet dependency (you need a connection), and cost. That said, we’re not here to litigate why people outside your organization choose to use (or not use) Google Docs. The bigger point is as an external stakeholder (to your external stakeholder), you have little control over their internal processes and applications they choose to use. Or, yours is not to reason why; yours is to go and find an approach (or platform) that facilitates collaboration on documents and files with your external stakeholder, irrespective of their internal processes and applications.

Why You Should Use an External Collaboration Tool Instead of Google Docs

Google Docs is great for internal document collaboration, TakeTurns is terrifc for external collaborationsi

Choosing an external collaboration tool instead of Google Docs for document collaboration with external stakeholders eliminates many of the issues described above.  Simply put, the combined team shifts away from the noise of real-time editing—with its trust, communication, privacy, and professionalism concerns—and towards a cleaner, version-centric approach.  Since each version represents an identifiable stage of completion, ready for review and feedback, the parties can focus on the task at hand more efficiently and effectively. 

But that’s not the only reason to choose an external collaboration platform over Google Docs. With a platform such as Google Docs, you’re forcing the other party to use your cloud-based storage (and possibly follow your internal processes). Because external collaboration platforms sit in the middle, they help you and your external party bridge the gap or interoperate between your unique internal applications and processes. 

Finally, the platforms provide numerous valuable features that streamline how to work with external stakeholders:

  • Centralized Content Management: These tools establish a centralized hub for all document-related materials. By aggregating documents, files, versions, and communications in one place, they significantly reduce the likelihood of miscommunication. This centralization streamlines access and saves time, as all parties know precisely where to find needed information.
  • Structured Collaboration: With structured collaboration for document exchange, such as the turn-based approach in TakeTurns, every party is clear on when it is their turn to review, comment, or edit. Contrast this to real-time editing solutions like Google Docs, where folks can come in and edit as they please, making it difficult to understand if the other party is finished or not.  Structure minimizes confusion and greatly enhances the efficiency and flow of the negotiation process.
  • Version Control: Most of these platforms offer robust version control features. They ensure all parties are always working on the correct version of a document, meticulously tracking and recording each change for complete transparency.
  • Improved Transparency and Accountability: Features like detailed activity timelines and explicit turn-by-turn workflows provide all parties with a transparent view of the documents’ progress. Such visibility fosters trust and accountability, with every action taken on the document being recorded and readily visible. Keep in mind that this is not the same granularity  of transparency (e.g., every! single! edit! you’d see in version history for Google Docs). 
  • Security and Compliance:  Many external collaborations are business critical and therefore require a high degree of confidentiality and security. External collaboration tools come equipped with advanced security features to safeguard sensitive data. Moreover, they aid in adhering to record retention and privacy regulations, ensuring a secure and compliant archival of all negotiation activities.
  • Time and Cost Efficiency: By effectively streamlining the document collaboration process, these tools yield significant time and cost savings. Efficiency is not just a benefit but a necessity in fast-paced environments.
  • Ease of Onboarding New Participants: Introducing new stakeholders into ongoing reviews is streamlined with these tools. Their comprehensive overview of past communications and document changes facilitates a rapid and seamless integration process for newcomers.

In conclusion, while Google Docs offers versatility and ease of use for a wide range of applications, external collaborations often require a more specialized approach. External collaboration tools, or platforms like TakeTurns, represent a step forward in meeting these specialized needs, offering enhanced security, tailored features, and a professional environment designed to optimize external collaborative efforts. By choosing a platform specifically designed for such interactions, organizations can foster more effective, secure, and efficient collaborations.


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