Despite Microsoft Office's still strong grip on the corporate world, there is a subtle shift at play: More companies are complementing Office with lower-cost and Web-based alternatives, according to a new report from Forrester Research. In other words, they're taking a mix and match instead of either/or approach.
Office file formats from Google, Zoho and ThinkFree are improving, notes the report, called "The Next Wave of Office Productivity." Also, the transition to technologies such as mobile, cloud, social networking and collaboration presents an opportunity for IT departments to move parts of a workforce to cloud-based productivity tools, according to the report by Forrester analysts Sheri McLeish, Matthew Brown and Joseph Dang.
In a Forrester survey of 115 SMB and enterprise IT decision-makers, 57 percent see Office alternatives as "complementary apps provisioned alongside Microsoft Office" and 49 percent see them as "specialized apps provisioned to specific workforce segments to meet a business need."
"Our research shows that most information workers are not regularly creating content or using advanced features ... and that upwards of 75 percent of employees could get by with an alternative," writes McLeish in the report.
Whether a company is willing to use Office alternatives such as Google Apps, OpenOffice.org, ThinkFree or Zoho Apps depends on their willingness to switch from a one-size-fits-all model, where a company uses enterprise-wide licensing to run Exchange, SharePoint and Office, to a fit-to-purpose model, where a company selects a mix of Office and Web apps based on user need.
The fit-to-purpose approach requires a deeper understanding of workforce needs, but can lead to significant savings by reducing license fees and vendor lock-in, writes McLeish.
"The big challenge often comes from users who may resist transitioning to a new tool. So it is important to understand your organization's culture, get senior-level buy-in, and develop a transition plan that ensures no disruption to business productivity."
If you fall into the fit-to-purpose camp, Forrester offers three best practices for mixing and matching with Microsoft Office.
Use Web Apps to Reduce Storage Needs
If you consider that most Office documents are largely static, then a wise approach is to let this content stay in its current form or convert to PDF for archiving and retrieval. With online apps available as a complement to Office, new content will then be created with the Web-based tools and the need to store and archive files will diminish over time.
"Many companies create a lot of Office documents and never get rid of them," says McLeish. "Using online apps for people who don't need the full Office suite will ultimately save on storage costs and improve search."
Segment Your Workforce, Lower E-mail Costs
Lowering e-mail costs is often a compelling reason for companies to move to online apps, says Forrester.
To understand which users do not require the full features and functions of Office, particularly e-mail, firms need to segment their workforce, Forrester advises.
A company can then provision these segments according to actual use and need for certain Office tools. In this scenario, it's important to fully evaluate the consequences of an information worker not having Office.
Understand How Content Creation Is Changing
While Office documents remain widely used, Forrester sees erosion from two sides. First, online "collaboration" tools for content generation such as wikis and blogs do not rely on Office docs. Two emerging examples here are Acrobat.com and IBM's LotusLive.
At the other end of the spectrum, writes McLeish, companies can now find specialized content management systems for areas like HR and customer communications that use authoring tools that look and feel like Microsoft Word.
"There are more and more content creation tools that use e-forms or online documents," says McLeish. "This is more of long-term threat to Office, but it's an area for companies to consider when figuring out who needs Office and who doesn't."
Shane O'Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for CIO.com. Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Shane at email@example.com.