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What tools do you use for external collaboration?

At Every Turn TakeTurns Blog
|  by
Conrad Chuang
Conrad Chuang
What tools do you use for external collaboration?

🧐 How do you collaborate with people outside your organization?

Over the past several years, we’ve all witnessed the evolution of the workplace as organizations cycled between in-person, remote, and hybrid work. And in that rapidly morphing environment, organizations adopted new tools, processes, and policies (e.g., zero trust) to improve and secure collaboration (often asynchronous collaboration) between employees wherever they might be. Examples include tools to create and share documents, instant message, manage projects, and more. 

While professionals are much better equipped for internal collaboration, they still don’t have a great way to work with external parties.

📄 “Erm, we use Office not Google”

For internal teams, sharing and editing documents is usually straightforward. For example, if one uses Office 365, one creates a new Word doc and then sends a link to coworkers. 

However, working with external parties, e.g., clients or partners, is often not quite as easy. The external party might be using something else, e.g., Google Workspace. Or their organization might have policies that prohibit the use of other document management tools. And, don’t forget, your organization may have policies limiting access to file stores, e.g., Sharepoint, from folks outside of the org. So it’s not as easy as sending a link. 

Digging deeper, we see that many of these tools are well-designed for co-authoring. In both Google Docs and Office 365, multiple authors can update the document, often at the same time, with every change tracked. (As a side point, this is how documents end up with hundreds of versions in their version history!) The immediacy of real-time editing and granular versioning is most useful in those “jam sessions.” Working sessions when an internal team comes together online to edit documents in real-time. But is this how we actually collaborate with external parties? 

When we work with people outside our organization, we hold them at arm’s length (even freelancers and consultants). Because unlike internal teams, where there is a clear hierarchy of control, with external parties, we often share control over the collaboration. That shared control means there’s a need for more structure and crystal-clear handoffs during the process. 

Consider a typical scenario you and your team are collaborating on a document with an external party. Your team provides edits and updates, and when you’re ready, you hand over your latest version–or your snapshot of the document–to the other party for review. The other party reviews that document and adds changes and comments. And, when they’re ready, they hand their latest version–or their snapshot of the document–to you. Those granular versions maintained by MS Office or Google aren’t important. The files you exchanged with your external partner are the most important, as those snapshots represent each team's completed units of work. 

💬 “Can I Slack you in Teams?”

When it comes to internal instant messaging platforms, there has been a Cambrian explosion of options. Organizations are standardizing (or trying to) on Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Google Chat. 

While initially designed as a way to ask everyone on your team a quick question, organizations have grown to use these tools to support internal collaborations. For internal collaborations, messaging platforms have that group text vibe and social pressure. Everyone uploads documents and submits questions, comments, reactions, and gifs to the channel. Having everything in the channel is supposed to keep everyone on the same page. 

While initially focused on internal teams, external teams are now better supported (from a licensing and security perspective) with things like Slack Connect for Slack and Microsoft Teams Connect for Microsoft Teams. These extensions are helpful if your external party uses the same platform (e.g., Slack or Teams). But it can be downright annoying if you’re not. For example, if I am using Teams, but my partner wants me to use Slack, I’ll need to create and maintain a new account. And perhaps worst of all, keep Slack open just so I can monitor that one channel I’m using to support the collaboration. 

But even in cases where all my external parties use the same messaging platform, each additional partner adds to that ever-growing pile of channels I need to monitor. It’s a burden to keep instant messaging open and respond quickly. “Overwhelming” is the most common term we’ve heard when describing the current state of affairs. 

Taking a step back, it makes one wonder if messaging platforms are the best choice for external collaborations. After all there are a couple of implicit assumptions baked into messaging platforms. Nearly everything can be addressed quickly and in real time. Everyone who needs to participate is already subscribed. And everyone reads all the messages on the channel religiously. In a way, the assumptions baked into messaging platforms force synchronous processing for everyone involved. After all, if you aren’t keeping up with all the messages at all times, that one critical piece of info you need to know might scroll up, up, and away into the channel’s history. 

As we mentioned above, collaborations with folks outside your organization are different. In external collaborations, we share control, and these collaborations are asynchronous. Each party needs time away from the crush of Slack messages to do their portion of the work. And finally, with most external collaborations, participants flow in and out of the collaboration as needed. Subject matter experts are routinely added (then removed) to weigh in on the collaboration. These individuals need context. Combing through chat history is not the most efficient way to get a handle on all the key issues. 

📨 “Email me?”

At the end of the day, challenges with the apps and tool mismatches is why folks fall back to email for external collaboration. But email is not a collaboration tool, as we discussed in this article. Usability issues are why professionals spend so much time in their inboxes. And email isn’t very secure. While most organizations have finally implemented encryption when sending and receiving email, not everyone has, which means plain text transmission of sensitive messages, documents, and files over the internet. But perhaps more importantly, when email is used for external collaborations, every single associated document (and all their versions) is duplicated in every participant’s inbox. 

TakeTurns extends your workspace for external collaboration.

We’ve designed TakeTurns to be the least intrusive app for collaborating with people outside your organization. Think about TakeTurns as an extension of your current workspace: You keep working with your existing apps to create, and store docs and files, but when it comes to working with an external party, you use TakeTurns.

Adding turn-by-turn structure to an unstructured process

In tools for coauthoring (Google Docs, Microsoft Office), messaging (Slack Teams), and email, it’s ambiguous when handoffs happen. In messaging and email, that’s why there are so many “acks” or acknowledgment replies, reactions, and emojis. TakeTurns works turn-by-turn. This means both parties take turns or definitively trade control over the external collaboration. Ending a turn sends a definitive signal (I’m done!). And it makes it crystal clear and transparent about whose turn it is to work on documents or files. 

All your collaboration content in one place. 

Presently, content, comments, and questions about external collaboration are everywhere. Materials could be in cloud storage, email, or in channels in multiple messaging platforms (Teams, Slack, Chat, and text messaging). Worse, there could be conflicting versions spread across all those channels. This morass is why participants end up spending time searching and reconciling all the various versions of their collaboration content. With TakeTurns, we’ve included all the features you need to run a collaboration, and we’ve created one place for you and your participants to see the entire exchange at a glance. 

Ephemeral storage means better security.

Today with external collaborations, we make good-faith assumptions about the cybersecurity stance of our partners. We have to. After all, as we mentioned above, when you use email to collaborate on documents and files, copies of the document (and all their versions) end up in the inboxes of everyone involved. 

In TakeTurns, we took a different approach. Collaborations are ephemeral. Once a collaboration has finished (let’s say both parties agree on a final set of documents), the content is removed after a set period of time (the grace period). During that grace period, participants can download the collaboration content to the archiving platform of their choice. The objective is to make TakeTurns users much more intentional about record retention and more secure at the same time. 

Download our eBook: Go async

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TakeTurns brings structure, security, and transparency to your collaborations. With TakeTurns, you and your parties will know whose turn it is to work, track the full history, and maintain confidentiality. Learn more in our Help Center or follow us on LinkedIn and YouTube. And when you’re ready for chaos-free collaboration: check our our demo and try TakeTurns for free.

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