news / tech talk

Collaboration and Communication

by Lee LeClair
As seen in Inside Tucson Business

If you have not been involved in a large project operating with a very aggressive timeline, you may not be aware that there are a lot of online tools available these days to assist in collaboration, document tracking, project tracking, and general communication. Usually a large project with several teams that need to collaborate have to deal with some common issues: communication, coordination, project management, and common documents. There is a lot of overhead in dealing with these issues as most project managers know.

Typically, a combination of telephone and email have been used to communicate information between all team members between pre-coordinated meetings. To deal with large email lists, mailling lists or list-serves may be used to more easily manage the lists. Project participants subscribe to email lists associated with a project or even an aspect of a project. People then write emails to one email distribution address and they are sent to all the subscribers. The benefit of these is that they work and are a passive way of receiving information; when something happens, all the subscribers get notified via email. The downside is often a lot of email. Another alternative is a collaboration site which acts as a sort of blog-plus. One I'm currently involved in now has mimicked the social networking site Facebook very closely. When I log in and look at the project group, I see whatever actions have taken place in a rolling page format like Facebook's wall interface, complete with date-timestamps and who authored the updates. The downside of these types of solutions has been that one has to login to see what is going on, but now they have incorporated email notifications about updates so project members don't have to check-in all the time to see if anything has changed.

The collaboration site provides an ability to upload documents and images which can be viewed within the site as well. While this provides a rudimentary document repository, the particular site I have been using is a bit lacking in document organization, storing multiple versions of a document, or allowing other people to edit documents. So we are looking at separate web-based document management solutions that may have more sophisticated options. Similarly, the collaborative site does not offer any project management capability related to tasks and timelines so yet another online tool is being used for that function. The intent is to use the collaborate site to provide general updates on news and allow anyone to ask anyone or everyone questions; all of which are automatically documented in one "flow" for the project. For "outboard" tools like common document repositories or project management tools, information and links will be posted on the main collaboration site so that those who need to can go to the other tools when they need to. We have been supplementing the collaborative tool with telephones, instant messaging, sms messaging, Skype, email, and desktop sharing tools as various members use or have access to some things and not others.

In this particular case, the project solution is really a combination of point solutions (one for collaboration, one for document management, a bunch for immediate communication, and one for project management). Since most are web-based, links to one another can be used rather than true integration. It is a bit clumsy that one must login to each of the separate solutions to access information but so far that has not been too uncomfortable. The other alternative, a single online solution that provides collaborative, document management, and project management capabilities was untenable in our situation because at least one of the capabilities was not good enough for our needs. In our case, the discomfiture of several point solutions was overcome by the better applications for each requirement. I have to say that smartphones and their capabilities for voice, sms, email, and browsing have changed how we do business as well. If you have a business, take a look at what is available today to make your project easier to manage or possible to manage at all. Your competitors probably are.