Are there any teamwork solution alternatives for Office 365?

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As concluded in my previous post, there are many alternatives for building a communicative intranet. However, when we take a closer look at document-centric teamwork solutions, it seems as if O365 has won the game already. For instance, in the article written by the online security firm Bitglass a couple of years ago, it is mentioned that Office 365 had already overtaken Google Apps when comparing enterprise adoption of cloud applications. And they certainly have kept up the pace in the past years. So, are the other alternatives even worth considering? Sure they are.

North Patrol is a consulting firm specialized in the design of digital services and information systems. We shape ideas into a vision and service concept, find the best architectural and technological solutions, design a functional user experience, and compete to find the ideal partner for implementation work. We do not sell implementation projects, nor do we sell licenses; we are genuinely on the side of the customer.

8 December 2017

Kimmo Parkkinen

Admittedly, an O365 intranet is at its best when document-centric group work needs to be done. Everyone is familiar with Office tools. Offline synchronization and collaborative editing of documents works well (quite often), and mobile access is getting better and better all the time. Yammer is a nice addition, and the cloud provides email, calendar, and video conference tools – pretty much all that is needed for daily work, that is. And since Microsoft’s market share is so strong, there are not too many challengers. They do exist, however, and here is a few of them.

Google G Suite

Even though Google implementations are not increasing at the same rate as O365, it still is perhaps the top competitor. Especially in a small organization, Google G Suite will set things off nicely for a reasonable amount of money. Even the cheapest license includes everything that is needed for basic office work: corporate email, calendar, instant messaging, video conferencing, as well as Google’s browser-based office apps. Collaborative editing of documents works at least as smoothly as with Microsoft tools. However, a browser is required – there are no desktop app versions.

Should the need for storage space increase, for example, a more expensive license is required. That is when the cost savings compared to O365 become meaningless. Moreover, G Suite does not include a communicative intranet platform solution. To make up for this, there are a few solutions that actually work (e.g. Gapps’ Universe), but there is no such thing in the default G Suite bundle. Despite this, G Suite is a fine choice especially for a small company’s teamwork tool package.


Confluence is primarily a wiki platform intended for workgroups and teams. It enables managing large data masses efficiently. Confluence’s wiki workspaces are notably used in different kinds of expert organizations, in which data production is very fragmented and decentralized. The tools are easy to use and cross-linking content is effortless, so most often it is very easy to encourage people to create and edit content.

Collaborative document editing can be done, too. Not as well as by using Office tools or G Suite, but it is possible. Confluence keeps content as wiki pages during the editing phase, and when the page is finished, the content can be easily saved as a Word document. Nowadays it is also possible to open and save files directly from Word (by using an add-on). Monitoring changes made in different workspaces is easy – much easier and more versatile than in SharePoint. To complete the package, Stride is available (formerly known as Hipchat). It contains the necessary tools for instant messaging and video conferences, for example.

Confluence has a user-based licensing model, so you need to be prepared to grab your wallet with this one, too. However, especially in expert organizations with lots of teamwork and many content creators involved, Confluence is often a very cost-effective and viable solution. For example, the Helsinki City Theatre (in Finnish) uses Confluence actively for the internal communication of theatre production crews and other workgroups.


In the “heavyweight series” of intranets, IBM is the undisputed champion of Finland. For example, we have not seen new Oracle intranets in a while, but IBM projects land on our desk every now and then. In the heavyweight series, the starting price may be rather steep, which quite often takes the edge off the excitement right at the get-go. Moreover, the prices of implementation projects are typically sky-high. We are easily talking about one or two million euros, especially if there is any customization involved.

An additional challenge for Oracle and other giants is the vendor field. It is a fact that technical vendors are hard to come by up here in Finland. At least there are 1–2 IBM vendors, which really is not too much, either.

It is hardly surprising to anyone that IBM’s solutions are often chosen by massive international organizations. IBM has a wide array of solutions for almost every imaginable need. For a collaborative intranet platform, IBM Connections is a suitable choice. Depending on the chosen licensing model, the complete solution may contain email, instant messaging and online meeting tools, as well as collaborative document editing and sharing tools – much like O365, that is.

The most complaints about IBM tools concern the fact that people accustomed to using Microsoft’s Office tools are not 100 % comfortable using the IBM Office package. On the other hand, the activity feed that gathers updates from different work communities is often praised – this is something that is missing from the O365 world. Furthermore, if there are thousands of intranet users, IBM’s annual cost may be even lower than O365 solution’s.

Solutions to support the complete intranet package

G Suite, Confluence and IBM all offer the possibility to create a teamwork-oriented intranet on a single platform. However, it is not always possible – or even desired – to use only one platform. And that can be perfectly ok. A fine, well-functioning intranet can be built from several pieces.

A more robust document management solution is often purchased to enable editing and long-term storage of process-managed, “official” documents. Despite that, some document management solutions are quite usable teamwork tools, too. For instance, the M-Files clould service is used quite widely as a teamwork platform. It is quite pricey for a teamwork solution alone, though. But if the organization already has the licenses or if there are some other reasons to justify the decision, it may be even reasonable to replace SharePoint document libraries with project- or team-based M-Files views.

Different project management and/or tracking solutions are also actively used to support the whole intranet solution package. Basecamp and Trello are popular choices. Jira can also sometimes fulfill the needs, especially when used together with Confluence. Furthermore, social collaboration platforms such as Slack and previously mentioned Stride/Hipchat are examples of other teamwork crowd-pleasers. All of these handle communication and document sharing within teams easily and effortlessly. In many ways they perform even better than, for example, Teams that can be found in the Office 365 package.

If the need is clearly defined, the tool can be chosen very specifically as well. Of course surprises may happen along the way in case the magnitude of needs increases past the tool’s capabilities. For example, the amount of documents to be handled may increase significantly, and/or the amount of tools that are needed to perform the necessary tasks becomes too high.

Tough decision (once again)

Among the document-oriented group work solutions, O365 and SharePoint Online are currently leading the pack, even if they are not perfect. Here at North Patrol we are often scratching our heads with synchronization issues and/or lagging Office apps. And there’s only eight of us. We can only imagine what it is like in large corporations. Unfortunately each platform comes with its own problems.

When it is time for the platform decision, one must first survey the users’ actual needs carefully: who will use the tools, and for what kind of tasks. It is recommended to spend some time to figure out the tools that have been used for these tasks until then. It might not be a good idea to revise the whole working culture at the same time. The technical tools acquired should provide support for the daily work, not vice versa.

I’m cutting some corners here, but here’s my brief summary:

  • In case collaborative editing of documents by using Microsoft Office tools is an absolute requirement, O365 has no true rivals.
  • Google G Suite will set things off quickly and cost-effectively especially for a small organization.
  • Confluence is the most functional alternative if wiki-style editing and de-centralized content management is the preferred modus operandi.
  • IBM’s toolbox contains almost everything imaginable, but they are hardly cost-effective unless the organization is really big.
  • A complete, do-it-all platform is not always necessary. Targeted individual solutions for each need may yield satisfactory results.

Need help on intranet or digital workplace redesign?

North Patrol is your expert in selecting the best vendors and technologies for your next web project. We are an independent consulting company without ties to system vendors, and can help select the best implementation plan and vendor to save you headaches in the long run. Read more on our services.

Kimmo Parkkinen

Kimmo Parkkinen is an expert in requirement specifications and software procurement.

Kimmo consults the customers on defining the functional requirements and technical design of web based solutions as well as selecting the best suppliers for the implementation phase. His areas of expertise include designing, modelling and documenting complex web based services.

Kimmo has over 20 years of experience with web and intranet projects, including serving as a software architect, technical project manager and a production manager in software vendor companies and also as an independent consultant.

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