Real-time Collaborative Editing in Word, Excel and PowerPoint

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This is part of a series of articles that will appear over the next few months as part of the Go Paperless initiative at Indiana University.

When multiple individuals provide their separate contributions to a single document, this is termed as collaborative editing. Having the ability to allow more than one person to update the same document is often as essential as it is advantageous. Until recently, collaborative editing of Word, Excel or PowerPoint files had a major restriction in that only one person could work on a single file at a time; otherwise, it was necessary to keep multiple versions of the file and reconcile them all into a single file. This restriction can be a bottleneck since only one person may edit the file at a time, additional effort is needed for version control and coordination between contributors, and reconciling between multiple files requires additional effort and increases the risk for missed updates.

Collaborative editing technology, however, has matured significantly over the past few years through the use of cloud storage services. By leveraging cloud technologies, collaborators now have access to a number of tools that help streamline collaborative editing. Of specific interest to Office users, synchronous or real-time collaborative editing is now possible, which allows several people to work on a Word, Excel, or PowerPoint file at the same time. Let’s take a brief look at this real-time collaborative editing provided by Google and Microsoft. Before we start, please note that Google Drive and Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud storage services are not supported by IU and are not suitable for storing or sharing institutional data. However, this information may be of use for personal projects.

Google Drive

Google Docs, Google Sheets and Google Slides are part of an office suite offered by Google. For Microsoft Office users, part of the appeal of using these Google programs is that Word, Excel and PowerPoint files may be converted to its Google file version (Docs, Sheets, and Slides respectively) and converted back to the Office version. Each of the Google programs use the Google Drive cloud storage service to share files and collaborate. Take for example Google Sheets. By converting an Excel spreadsheet into the Google Sheets file and sharing it in Google Drive, multiple collaborators may edit that single spreadsheet in real-time. Google Sheets displays where and what the changes are and by whom the edit was made, in real-time. In addition, collaborators can chat within the program as updates to the file are made. Once edits are finished, the Google Sheets file may then be converted back into an Excel file. The same functionality applies to Word via Google Docs and PowerPoint via Google Slides.


Microsoft provides real-time collaboration in Word, Excel and PowerPoint through OneDrive and Office Online. When a user opens a shared Word file in OneDrive, for example, they can choose to edit the document in Word Online rather than the Word desktop program. By utilizing Word Online, each collaborator may open and edit the same file at the same time. Word Online indicates which users are currently editing the document, displays those edits in real-time, and even locks the area being worked on so those edits are not overwritten. Once the collaborator has saved their changes they are highlighted and made visible to anyone else working in the document. In the scenario where conflicting edits may occur, Word Online will notify the user of the conflict and provides the option to choose which changes to save. The same functionality through OneDrive is available to Excel and PowerPoint. (Note: this collaborative editing via OneDrive applies to Office Online, 2013, 2010 and 2011 for Mac.)

So there you have it, a brief overview of some the real-time collaborative editing applications available for Word, Excel and PowerPoint. It is worth noting that offline (non real-time) collaborative editing tools are available from Google and Microsoft as well. As mentioned earlier, Google Drive and OneDrive should not be used to store or share files that contain institutional data. Also, always be aware of your cloud storage sharing settings and know what documents and with whom you are sharing. Happy collaborating!

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