Two of my friends recently told me that I blew their minds. How? Easy. I axed the email thread we were involved in, regarding organising a big dinner outing (you know how those threads implode and no one can keep up with who said they were free on which date) and instead used Doodle. Doodle is a free website that lets you create an online poll for things like which day and time people are free to get together. I've used it for years for collaboration, mostly in scheduling meetings with people who live all around the world and are in various time zones.
So many amazing apps are out there to assist with collaboration. Maybe I blew my friends' minds with my efficiency, but it blew my mind to realise they had never come across Doodle before!
To assist people with the painstaking duty of being the collaboration organiser, I wanted to share some of the best tools I've found for getting great minds and ideas together.
Doodle has become my go-to scheduling app because it's free and doesn't require the participants to register to use. Set up a poll, send out the link, and let people reply by simply going to the website and ticking boxes. It's invaluable for scheduling meetings or social events with a large group.
When everyone uses the same calendar system, such as Outlook's calendar, you can usually make your calendar visible to other team members, which can help with scheduling – but those circumstances don't always work for everyone.
How do you make files available to all the people with whom you're collaborating? Don't email them around! That's sloppy and hard to track. You need a better way to share documents and folders.
The simplest solutions come in the form of file-syncing services such as Dropbox or SugarSync. Actually, I use both; SugarSync for work files and Dropbox for personal files. I've used them to share documents with all kinds of people, including editors and even my lawyer.
I find Dropbox and SugarSync much simpler to set up and use – and convince other people to use – than FTP sites, which is the more old school way of sharing files and folders.
Editing collaboratively, asynchronously
Yet another reason to use Dropbox or SugarSync, or another file-syncing service for organising collaboration is because they allow multiple people to edit one document, although usually asynchronously. In other words, you can't watch another person edit the file in real time. Changes occur locally and only become visible to the group when the person doing the editing uploads the document back to the shared location.
These services don't give you fine granularity into what collaborators can and can't do (you can't, for example, give Kate the ability to edit files X and Y but not Z), but they do provide basic permissions. For example, you can share by sending out a read-only link, or you can invite people with full access to whatever's in a certain shared folder.
Editing collaboratively, synchronously
Google Docs, which has now been tied into the new Google Drive, has one of the most impressive collaborative features I've ever seen: The ability to edit collaboratively in real-time.
I once worked with an associate who lived in another county, and we had weekly phone meetings that were meant to be "working meetings." That is to say, we discussed the state of the project while simultaneously getting work done which furthered the project. We used a simple spreadsheet in Google to log the tasks that needed to be done, and marked them with a priority rating. During the week, we could add notes as needed. Then during our meeting, we could go through the list, complete the tasks in real time while on the phone, and tick them off. Sometimes, however, he would see something on the list and say, "What does that mean?" I would explain. And he would change the way the task was written, right in front of my eyes, so that I was sure his translation of the task meant the same thing I intended. It was collaborative bliss.
Google's tools work not only for spreadsheets, but also presentation and text documents as well.
While the previous example proves it's possible to use Google’s service for task management, it would have been a poorer choice had I been collaborating with more than one person. For more complex team projects, you need to use a proper task manager, or better still, a full-on project management service.
On the lightweight side there's Asana, a flexible web app for task management that's free for up to 30 collaborators. It offers all the right tools for managing teamwork and tasks, such as deadline setting along with priority and label options.
Although Asana could work as a project management app, I wouldn't recommend using the free version for complex projects when you have tools like Basecamp and Huddle available to get the job done.
Basecamp comes in both a free and paid premium version. It easily sets the bar for free online project management by giving you a space for collaborators to upload files, comment on them, and exchange messages (which can be forwarded to your email, too).
Huddle is another option, which also comes in free and paid versions. Similarly, it lets you manage projects, store files, schedule and hold meetings, and facilitate communication through wikis and forums.
Sometimes you need to show your teammates exactly what's on your screen in order for them to understand what you're talking about. If you frequently collaborate or (virtually) meet with people who aren’t in the same physical location, you need to read up on your screen-sharing options.
Two very popular efforts are TeamViewer and Skype. TeamViewer is perhaps the simplest and most powerful option. It's packed with features for desktop-sharing, presenting, and even remote controlling desktops. Businesses have to fork over around £400 for a license, but individuals can use it free.
One of my biggest concerns when it comes to getting people to collaborate is that I don't want to force people to sign up for yet another app or service that they ultimately don't want – and that's a key reason I turn to Skype for screen-sharing. Many people the world over already have Skype accounts. To share your screen with a group, you'll have to upgrade to Skype Premium (£7.19 per month, or half that if you commit to a full year), but one-on-one screen-sharing is free.
Cooperation makes it happen
Numerous other wonderful tools make it easier and more efficient to collaborate with people both near and far away. What's your favourite software for collaboration? Please post any thoughts or recommendations you have in the comments section below.