Let’s save ourselves the trouble and get straight to the point. Yes, you can give up Microsoft Office, that trusty ol’ personal productivity suite that you have been using for years, and switch to Google Apps. In fact, as a small-medium business owner myself, I recommend that you go all Google. Here’s why…

As a small business, you know that one of the biggest challenges you face is keeping all of your information technology up and running. For nurseries, getting IT staff on location to install software or fix installation problems can be a real pain. It is for this reason that I encourage small businesses to look at dropping Microsoft’s Office suite and moving to Google Apps. Yes, I know that is a rather bold statement. Many of you are very attached to Microsoft Word and Excel. But let’s face it, whenever your computer breaks down, or whenever Microsoft releases a new version of office, there is always a mad scramble to try and quickly recover your information or relearn the software.

Let’s look at the benefits of going to the cloud:

Who Cares About Hardware?

In a perfect world, computers don’t break down or get stolen. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world, and computers, especially the old clunky ones, will break down. What makes this a double whammy is the fact that you not only lose your device, but also ALL of the relevant information stored in it.   With cloud-based productivity tools, when your desktop breaks down you do not need to wait to get it fixed to begin doing your work again. You simply grab another computer and are up and running in seconds.

You just throw out the old machine and get back to work on another.  So while Google Apps can’t do anything about the lost or broken machine, it allows you to keep working. Most importantly, Google will have the most valuable asset – your documents –  ready and waiting. Documents are not tied to any one machine, and no matter what happens to computer hardware, the work files are still available.

The Office in the Palm of Your Hand

Google Apps come pre-installed on Android Smartphone and Tablets. You can also access your documents and applications on any device with a web browser: iPhone, iPads, Windows phones, etc. By having your work documents available on your mobile devices, you can stay productive even when you are not in your office. You can quickly edit a document from your tablet while waiting in line. I have even run multiparty conference calls with my sales team, using Google Apps’s Hangout feature, while sitting in a coffee shop between client visits.

Goodbye to Upgrades & Patches

One of the bugbears for small businesses is the constant cycle of upgrades to desktop software. It is very difficult to buy a computer with exactly the same set up as the one you’re currently using. One day you may be using a Windows XP machine running Microsoft office 2003, and the next day a new machine with Windows 8 running Office 2010. And the difference between these two machines is like chalk and cheese! Switching back and forth between the two machines becomes a nightmare, not to mention the document incompatibilities. This challenge is even greater because you do not have an IT department to help you reinstall software, and migrate files.

Moving to cloud-based applications like Google Apps eliminates this problem. For a start, there’s nothing to install: no special hardware, no client software. You just use whatever web browser is available.  There are no updates or patches to install. Whenever you refresh your browser you get the very latest version of Google apps.

Technical Management aside, moving away from the clunky old upgrade cycle of desktop software to the cloud greatly reduces training requirements. New features are added to Google apps incrementally: your staff simply see a new widget or tool as soon as it is released. This gives you time to get familiar with any new features gradually as you use the software over time. There is no shock new release with a totally new interface to try and get your head around. And of course, you don’t need to pay for the new upgrade. It just happens.

Better than Good Enough

One of the things that you will hear some people state is that Google Apps lacks many of the functions of Microsoft Office. This is true. However, in my experience Google Apps packs more than enough features for small business day-to-day operations. In fact, the features that Google lacks are often features that you either don’t use, or that actually get in the way of you figuring out how to use some software. For example Microsoft Word has very powerful page layout capabilities – you can create beautiful designs and letterheads. While Google does not have the same level of page layout, its layout features are more than good enough to write a report, prepare a price list, create quotes on proposals, et cetera. Likewise with spreadsheets, Google offers a good enough set of capabilities.

Based on my observations, what typically happens when people start using Google Apps is that they appreciate that each application is a streamlined but functional productivity tool. Then they discover that they can work collaboratively on a document or spreadsheet: multiple people can work on the same document. There is no need to email documents between staff members, there is no need to know who’s got what document open at what time. There is no “getting out of sync” with important documents because everybody is working on the very same document. Once people understand this feature of collaboration, they simply can’t go back to using desktop-based Microsoft Office files. The power of collaboration trumps the need for formatting tricks any day of the week!

The following table outlines the tools in Google Apps.

Word Processing:  Google Docs is a moderately sophisticated word processor, though arguably it lacks some of the more powerful document formatting capabilities of Microsoft Word. However, by using the document sharing function of Google, staff and external parties (contractors, suppliers, even customers) can collaborate on a document, even at the same time. Google Docs allows you to import and work with Microsoft Word documents, although some formatting can get messed up. It also allows you to save your documents as Microsoft Word or PDF files so that you can pass them to people who are not yet using Google.

Email: Gmail is arguably more robust and powerful than how you would be using Microsoft outlook at this time. In addition, Google’s email is automatically scanned for spam and viruses, further reducing IT support costs.

Spreadsheets: Google sheetsworks as well as your usual accounting worksheets which is sufficient for 99% of business functions (that’s a real number from a real study I conducted with larger enterprises). As with Google’s word processing, Google spreadsheets have limited formatting capability. However ability to share and work collaboratively on a spreadsheet outweighs formatting limitations.

Presentation: Microsoft’s Power Point takes the win here, since this tool is hugely based on formatting. However, you’d be surprised that Google can churn out a decent presentation.

Communications:  Google Hangouts is phenomenal for small business. It allows you to see when specific people are online, either on their desktop computer or their mobile, send and receive messages from them, and establish voice and/or video communications in an instant. During conference calls you can share documents and work on them together.

Drive: All your work documents – including those that are not in Google Apps formats – can be stored in the cloud. This means files are automatically backed up and that they can be accessed from any device, at anytime, anywhere. I have lost count of the number of times this has saved my bacon when a computer hard drive crashed, or when I was on the road and needed to grab an important document.

The main strength of Google is collaboration

Most start-ups and small businesses have employees who are not in the office, even business owners may have to work from home from time to time. These organizations may also have part time workers or people that help catch things that fall through the cracks. With cloud-based productivity tools, everyone can simultaneously work on that one single document that gets accessed all the time, like sales ledgers or inventories. There’s no need to attach to emails, save multiple versions and have multiple copies that nobody can keep track of. Documents can be edited in real time, even while employees conduct video calls.  Working with people on the other side of the room, in another part of town, or in another time zone is where Google really shines.

In Conclusion

Ok, I know this article sounds a bit like an ad for Google. It’s not. If anything my career has been based around Microsoft products for the last three decades. And I am a big fan of Microsoft in large organisations. However, for small businesses, especially nurseries, retailers, and those of us who cannot afford an IT department of our own, moving everything to the cloud is a logical choice. And Google is the leader in cloud at the moment.  

However, Microsoft also has its own cloud-based product the toolset called Office 365.  Office 365 delivers most of what Google has and is not skimp on the formatting of documents. Unfortunately, office 365 is considerably more expensive than Google. Google will cost you approximately $50 per user annually. Microsoft office 365 will cost you around $198 a month, for an equivalent setup.

Prior to jumping into Google Apps, it would serve you well to look at Office 365 and seriously consider its benefits in comparison to Google. Then look at your own business needs and determine which is good enough.