Best Practices for Document Collaboration with External Stakeholders

Best Practices for Document Collaboration with External Stakeholders

Working with external stakeholders demands a different kind of document collaboration

Document collaboration is when people work together on a document. They can share ideas, give feedback, and make changes either all at once or over time. It’s like working on a group project, but online. This way of working together is very helpful, especially now when many people are working from home or in different places.

Working together on documents can happen in two main ways. One is when people who work for the same company work together. This is usually easier because they can talk to each other anytime and make changes to the document at the same time. They all use the same computer system and tools, so it’s like they are in the same digital playground.

On the other hand, working with people from outside the company on a document can be a bit tricky. 

Here are some reasons why:

  • Tools Used:
    • Internal Stakeholders: Everyone usually uses the same tools and systems, making it easier to work together.
    • External Stakeholders: Different parties might use different tools or systems which may not work well together.
  • Security Rules:
    • Internal Stakeholders: Security rules are the same for everyone, and sharing is straightforward.
    • External Stakeholders: There might be strict rules on what can be shared and how it can be shared.
  • Geographies/Time Zones/Locales:
    • Internal Stakeholders: Usually, everyone works in similar time zones, so it’s easier to coordinate.
    • External Stakeholders: If parties are in different time zones, finding a time to work together can be hard.
  • Communication:
    • Internal Stakeholders: Talking to each other is usually easy and quick within the same company.
    • External Stakeholders: Communication might not be as easy and quick with outside parties.
  • Tracking Changes:
    • Internal Stakeholders: It’s easier to track who made what changes and when.
    • External Stakeholders: Keeping track of who changed what and when can be a puzzle.
  • Real-Time Collaboration:
    • Internal Stakeholders: People can often work on a document at the same time and see the changes right away.
    • External Stakeholders: Working on a document at the same time might not be possible due to different systems or rules.
  • Control:
    • Internal Stakeholders: There’s usually a level of control over how and when work gets done, as everyone follows the same company rules and guidelines.
    • External Stakeholders: With external stakeholders, you don’t have much control over their actions or timelines, which can sometimes lead to delays or unexpected changes.

The way to work on documents needs to be different when working with outside people. It’s like having a friend over to play, but they have different rules at their home, so you need to figure out a new set of rules that work for both.

Choosing the right tools to work together is very important. Some tools are great for working fast with your teammates, like being on a playground together. Those are real-time, or so-called synchronous document collaboration tools, like Google Docs, Microsoft 365. Other tools, like TakeTurns, are better for when you need to work with outside people, giving everyone their own time and space to contribute.

Understanding that working with your own team and working with outside people are two different games will help you pick the right way to work together. And using the right tools in the right ways can make working on documents a fun and successful project, no matter who you’re working with.

Now, let’s explore some proven tips to make working on documents with others a breeze, whether they are from your team or from another company.

Best Practices for document collaboration with external stakeholders

1. Understand Your Needs:

Before diving into a collaborative project with external parties, it’s crucial to pinpoint the nature of the collaboration. Are you brainstorming, creating a document from scratch, reviewing, or getting approvals? The objective guides the choice of tools and the level of access needed. Unlike internal collaborations, working with external stakeholders often requires a more formal and structured approach to ensure clarity and alignment.

It’s also vital to identify the right mode of collaboration. Will it be real-time or asynchronous? External collaborations often lean towards asynchronous interactions due to differing schedules and time zones. Understanding these aspects will help in setting the right expectations, choosing appropriate collaboration tools, and establishing clear communication channels, ensuring a smooth and productive collaboration experience with external stakeholders. 

2. Create Mutual Document Collaboration Policy 

Having a clear document collaboration policy is crucial when engaging with outside entities. This policy should outline the standards, processes, and expectations for collaborating on documents. It can cover everything from the use of tools to communication protocols and data security measures. A well-structured policy helps in ensuring consistency, clarity, and adherence to organizational norms, even when collaborating with external associates.

As part of that mutual document collaboration policy, agree upon a naming convention with your external stakeholder. A consistent naming convention helps in keeping documents organized and easily identifiable, which is especially crucial when dealing with versions. It’s even more important in external collaborations with external teams where the risk of confusion could be higher due to different organizational practices. If your collaboration tool supports automatic versioning, utilizing that feature can ensure a systematic and error-free naming convention, making it easier for all parties to track and retrieve documents.

3. Set Clear Permissions:

Defining precise permissions is fundamental when collaborating with external parties. It ensures that only authorized individuals can view, edit, or comment on documents. Unlike internal collaborations, those with external entities might require more rigid permission settings to protect sensitive information. Ensuring that every participant has the appropriate level of access based on their role in the collaboration is key to maintaining document integrity and security.

4. Encourage Open Communication:

Fostering an environment of open communication is vital when collaborating with people outside your organization. Encourage team members and external stakeholders to share their thoughts, feedback, and concerns freely. Having regular check-ins and updates can help in addressing issues timely, ensuring that the collaboration stays on track and goals are met.

5. Choose the Right Tool:

Today, collaborations with third parties are often managed through a combination of email and a mix of various internal tools. Unfortunately, many organizations treat collaborations with counterparties as an afterthought, which significantly contributes to the challenges often encountered in these collaborations.

For a more streamlined and effective external document collaboration, it’s advisable for organizations to invest in a tool designed to support the unique needs of external stakeholders. Such a tool can simplify the collaboration process for both parties involved, minimizing the common hurdles seen with a disjointed set of tools.

Selecting the right collaboration tool is critical for the success of collaborations with external teams. A tool like TakeTurns, designed for asynchronous collaboration, or other platforms tailored for real-time collaboration can significantly enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the collaboration process. The chosen tool should be user-friendly, secure, and aligned with the unique needs of your collaboration with external stakeholders, ensuring that all parties can work together seamlessly regardless of different organizational practices or geographical locations. This dedicated approach towards choosing the right tool reflects a proactive step towards improving external document collaborations, moving away from the reactive and disjointed practices commonly seen today.

6. Train Team Members:

Training is essential to ensure that both your team and the external parties are on the same page regarding the collaboration tools and processes. Providing training on the selected collaboration platform, communication channels, and security protocols can help in minimizing misunderstandings and maximizing productivity during the collaboration with external entities. If you plan on combining several internal tools to handle your external collaboration, you will definitely need to document how these tools should be used by everyone internal and external. Make sure you distribute the training materials ahead of time to avoid friction. 

7. Maintain Version Control:

Version control is vital, especially when multiple parties are involved in document editing. It helps track the evolution of the document and can be a lifesaver in case of conflicting edits or the need to revert to a previous version. For collaborations with counterparties, focusing on key versions or milestones, rather than every minor change, can help in keeping the version history organized and less overwhelming. Utilize automatic versioning if your tool supports it, as it’s less error-prone and can save time.

8. Communicate Clearly:

Clear communication is crucial for successful collaboration with people outside your organization. It’s essential to establish robust channels of communication, whether via email, chat, or within the collaboration tool itself. Employ a mix of real-time and asynchronous communication tools based on the needs of the project. Ensuring that there’s a clear record of discussions and decisions, especially when working with third parties, promotes transparency and helps in avoiding misunderstandings or misinterpretations. If you’re using a tool that helps integrate communications with collaboration management there’s not much to do. However, if you plan on using a combination of internal tools (e.g., email + microsoft 365) make sure how you plan on communicating is well documented in your mutual document collaboration policy.

9. Stay Organized:

Keep documents, feedback, and communication well-organized to ensure everyone can easily find what they need. Utilize folders, labels, and other organizational features of the collaboration tools you plan on using to keep everything tidy and accessible.

10. Wrap Up Properly:

 At the conclusion of the collaboration, archive all documents, discussions, and related materials in accordance with internal policies and applicable regulations. Providing a summary or a wrap-up report outlining the accomplishments, challenges, and lessons learned can promote continuous improvement and readiness for future collaborations.

These best practices provide a structured and comprehensive approach to managing external document collaborations effectively and efficiently.

Concluding thoughts: figuring out how to improve your collaborations with the outside world is worth the effort

Collaborating with external stakeholders, whether referred to as external parties, third parties, or counterparties, presents a complex landscape that warrants dedicated focus. The evolution of the collaborative work environment, especially with the rise of hybrid workspaces, has spotlighted the pivotal role of document collaboration in achieving project success, operational efficiency, and seamless communication among internal teams and external stakeholders. The outlined top ten best practices in this guide serve as a comprehensive roadmap to elevate your document collaboration processes with those outside your organization:

1. Understand Your Needs

2. Create Mutual Document Collaboration Policy (Includes Establishing a Naming Convention)

3. Set Clear Permissions

4. Encourage Open Communication

5. Choose the Right Tool

6. Train Team Members

7. Maintain Version Control

8. Communicate Clearly

9. Stay Organized

10. Wrap Up Properly

Each practice addresses a fundamental aspect of document collaboration, aiming to foster a productive, transparent, and organized collaborative environment. Whether it’s choosing specialized tools like TakeTurns for asynchronous collaborations, establishing clear communication channels, or maintaining a well-organized document repository, adhering to these practices significantly enhances collaborative efforts.

As organizations venture to improve their document collaboration processes, embracing these best practices provides a solid foundation. They are crafted to tackle the challenges posed by both internal and external collaborations, smoothing the path for projects to run efficiently. The emphasis on clear communication, structured organization, and the right choice of collaborative tools not only streamlines the workflow but also nurtures a harmonious and productive collaborative environment.

Transitioning to enhanced document collaboration practices may demand time, effort, and adaptation from your team. However, the payoff in terms of improved productivity, reduced miscommunication, and successful project outcomes justifies the investment.

We wish you the best of luck in implementing these best practices and advancing to a superior level of document collaboration with your teams and external stakeholders. The journey towards exceptional document collaboration begins with a single step, and armed with these insights, you are well on your way to fostering a collaborative culture that thrives on clarity, organization, and shared success.