Aug 29, 2010

Choosing online collaboration tools for teams

some rights reserved by schwa23 on flickr
We know teams are the way to get things done, but it’s hard to collaborate when we’re geographically dispersed. Working together at a distance seems to cry out for technology, but which one? I thought I’d ask a bunch of smart IT guys about it. After all, they have teams trying to get work done too. Here’s some of what I heard from the experts at the LinkedIn group, Chief Information Officer Network

E-mail is still the default collaboration tool -- it’s familiar and effective to a point. It becomes unwieldy quickly, however, when more than a couple of people are involved. How often have you struggled to make sense of a long email thread with non-chronological messages crossing each other? When you use e-mail to send documents for comment, keeping track of versions gets crazy quickly. That’s when you say there must be a better solution. Naturally, Microsoft and Google appear, as if by magic, each with their own supporters.

SharePoint from Microsoft is a big favorite. Ten of my advisors said they used it -- though not all were enthusiastic about it. Companies with broad Microsoft licenses tend to choose it as part of a package. It stores documents, schedules meetings, includes chat… On the downside, for any complex implementation, outside resources may be required. Some say it needs to be supplemented with more communications and social media tools. Jive SBS was mentioned as an option for adding rich social media features for internal (and external) collaboration. Yammer didn’t come up in the discussion, even after I asked about it, so let’s assume it’s not gaining much ground yet.

In support of Sharepoint, Linda says you can't beat using something that integrates with the rest of the Microsoft tools and Office suite. It saves on training and removes the need to have people learn new tools -- she says she’s seen it work for companies with 95,000+ users with a Project Management portal featuring business intelligence/dashboards pulling data from diverse systems (MRP, ERP, CRM, SaleForce, financial systems, etc.), even creating forms that work with legacy systems.

Google apps were mentioned by four people. I work on volunteer teams that use GoogleDocs, which allow any of us to update a document or spreadsheet. (You can work with .ppt files, but we haven’t so far.) Google Docs are good for users who need the cloud because they have no home server platform.

In the other camp, Mike is a fan of Google Apps Premier (GAP). His company has a number of facilities, and one had a fire last year. With a major proposal due, his team used Google Docs and Google Sites with online chat without missing a beat, he said.

Richard also likes Google Apps because it’s on the web, not dependent on internal factors, and collaboration is real time, as several people can work on a document at once.
And Android has the potential to bring Smartphones into the picture.

Some of the other tools mentioned were:
  • Microsoft Groove
  • ActionBase
  • Cisco WebEx
  • ExpertChoice
  • Wikis
  • MS Project
  • SmartSheet
  • Tableau
  • IBM Lotus Notes

Joaquim has a new iPad and is trying apps. He reports that TODO lets you manage projects, back them up on your desktop/notebook, and share activities with your team, via e-mail. He wonders if tablets will change the game.

It's not the tools but the thinking

The anti-tech solution came from one person -- cutting off access to computers to get people to talk to each other. It’s true that it’s too easy to e-mail people who work a few feet from us rather than taking time to talk face-to-face or to have a quick stand-up meeting. As Patrick said, “If your people sit next to each other but never peer over cubicle walls to talk to each other, all the Sharepoint, clouds, unified communications, etc. will do nothing to change that fact.” Shelwyn said that if you have a collaborative team, almost any tool will probably do.

David echoed what many lean professionals already know -- “Collaboration is more about mindset than it is about the tool. A collaborative culture will leverage any of the tools mentioned above. Likewise, a siloed culture will let them go to waste. Focus on changing corporate mindset and the tools will help the process. They'll never drive it.”

Tom likes to get team leaders in a room for 10 or 15 minutes every morning to understand what is on the agenda for the day and where team members can give or get help. He said it helps build a culture where team members openly discuss concerns/issues/opportunities with peers, and the synergies benefit the overall team performance immeasurably.

These comments are apropos to teams that are geographically close. The issues that come up with distance are more complex. Either way, getting people comfortable with the tools, so that the tools don’t get in the way of people interacting, depends on thoughtful choice and implementation.

Gian said tools need to be very easy to use, and interconnected with the applications that people use every day to do their work. They also need to be customized to business unit or clients they serve, he said, and require a dedicated resource(s) to administer and edit content to ensure that there is enough value that people want to use it.

Addressing the need to collaborate before you automate, Madhu shared his favorite ways to break corporate silos and get employees to collaborate:
  1. A common goal, challenge, or interest motivating employees to come together for a common cause.
  2. Reward or encouragement during the early adoption stages - This need not be monetary but need to have something to encourage and go the extra mile.
  3. Feedback once the common goal has been achieved leaves everybody with a good taste and encourages them to do it again.

Afzal pointed to a need organizations often forget about or skimp on: training. While some would disagree, he sees an age disconnect in the acceptance of tools and technology as a catalyst and facilitator for collaboration. “The generations who did not grow up in a world of global communication have a tendency to feel less at home with using SMSes, instant messaging, video and even audio conferencing, not to mention white board applications, distributed file systems, etc.,” he said, adding, “Any CIO who goes into the deployment of tools without understanding the nature of their user base, and their readiness to accept the tools, is looking for trouble!”

Many thanks to the folks who chimed in to answer my question on the Chief Information Officer Network on LinkedIn.


Jamie Flinchbaugh said...

We use Central Desktop and Yammer, both good for collaboration and all web-based so none of the corporate-server headaches. Also, Basecamp and Campfire are great collaboration tools as well.

Anonymous said...

Great article... very practical and real.

We have found that there is a great hurdle to overcome to get people working online when they think they can do it better otherwise.

Yet once see how easy it is to retrieve information that they worked on month's before, they soon come around. Online Collaboration has become a natural part of our business now, and we use Ice3 Online Collaboration ( which we found to be easy to use.

One final point, businesses shrink and grow and the people within them change. We have found using a collaboration tool as the heart of our business has meant that people (particularly younger staff) quickly get up to speed with working 'how we work'.

This has been a real boon and has lessened the learning curve for new staff as the company has grown.


Unknown said...

Jamie and Peter,
Thanks for your comments. It's so helpful to have people like you to keep the rest of us current with ways to make our work together more productive.


George said...

I love this post because it is so close to some of the ideas in my recent book about bringing Lean principles to the Web 2.0 office world.
I was hoping you could take a look at my book, "Far From the Factory" just published by Productivity Press. See
As you can see from the reviews and endorsements some people think there is new and refreshing material here.
Of course, I would love it if you could mention it in your blog. I would also be happy to contribute a guest post or two on the contents. I know that blogs are hungry things and need to be fed.

Amos said...

Its true but sometimes emails create problems in collaboration and misunderstanding creates. So if you really want to manage your work then I suggest a tool named ProofHub which is a centralized tool and you can easily manage the team and work simultaneously. I think you should go through this tool and I guarantee that you would definitely like it.

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