Collaborate Using Online Tools

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As journalists go, I am usually ridiculously organized (I procrastinate by rearranging my desk or home office). Lately, though, the sheer number of projects I'm handling--along with messages and appointments coming from three different e-mail accounts--has threatened to overwhelm me.

Compound this deluge by the fact that my role at a high-tech consulting company means I don't exactly work in a vacuum. Even though I'm miles away from most of my colleagues or clients, I need a way to share pertinent documents, presentations, and proposals with other people. Even more important, I need to track my due dates, and where my extended team is working (or playing) at any given moment.

Do these problems sound familiar?

The good news is, there's a whole new class of services aimed at small businesses that need to better support team collaboration and project management functions. Search the Internet for "online collaboration," and you'll see dozens of results returned. I've honed those choices to a handful of services--Basecamp, Central Desktop, Google Sites, HyperOffice, Sosius, Twiddla, and Vyew. These services have a true small-business bent and aren't simply the online editions of existing enterprise software packages. (PC World has reviewed various types of collaboration services and packages.)

When it comes to choosing which service to use, you'll want to consider four main capabilities: (1) how well you can manage all the projects you're juggling through some sort of team dashboard; (2) whether you can hold online conferences, complete with visual conferencing capabilities; (3) how easy the service makes the process of sharing and revising the project's shared resources and documents; and (4) how quickly team members can communicate updates as well as update their shared calendars.

Fortunately, all of the sites here offer a free trial of some kind, so you can try out various features before you commit to a monthly or an annual subscription.

Keep Things Straight With Dashboards

Sosius's dashboard is one of the most customizable.
Most online collaboration services employ a browser-based central dashboard that provides an overview for navigating your work existence. This dashboard is, in turn, organized by "workspaces." You can think of a workspace as a spot with all the resources necessary for a team to keep pushing a specific project forward, such as schedules, updates on project milestones, central document repositories, and a place to record team comments and observations. Dashboards help you keep a handle on multiple projects.

Security is also a consideration: Workspaces can either be private, gated for just a specific set of people, or made public for a broader community to share.

Above is an example of the overall dashboard from Sosius--it's one of the most customizable, allowing you to add different applications and work areas or to move them around to wherever you'd like them to be. (Click on this and the other thumbnails for full-size images.)

An example of Central Desktop's tabbed interface.
Central Desktop and Basecamp, by contrast, make use of a tabbed interface. Central Desktop even lets you build out custom tabs, allowing you to create and define new tabs that are specific to your unique projects rather than relying only on what's already predefined. And Central Desktop's site is peppered with useful demonstration videos that walk and talk you through the steps to complete common tasks--a definite plus.

To return to the Sosius interface for a minute: One thing I really liked about it was that I could move different applications around or reprioritize them by dragging and dropping them. That means I was able to organize things according to how I think and work rather than deal with them in the order that some interface designer tells me they should be in. Other services allow you to make such tweaks, too; the point is, you should look for the flexibility you need in the interface of any collaboration offering that you might use.

Google Sites lets you create an intranet that is your collaborative workspace.
Google Sites considers each collaborative workspace as an intranet, and it provides templates for you to design and pull together an intranet that's appropriate for your project. The Docs application within the service is where you can shuttle content around for review.

One big advantage of Google Sites is that it can appear less cluttered than some of the other collaboration offerings. On the other hand, a disadvantage is that each individual project is treated as something very stand-alone, making things a little tougher for those of us handling multiple projects at once.

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