Collaboration Tools For Online Groups

I don’t often hate things—I’m a pretty even-keeled dude. But I hate, despise, and utterly loathe the “Reply All” button that comes in every email client. Actually, those verbs don’t even really describe the level of my feelings, but I can’t say what I just said out loud because then my Mom, who reads this blog, would yell at me.

Point is, the Reply All function, which has become basically the standard way for dealing with a common thought or document among a group of people, just doesn’t work. It leads to people receiving emails who don’t need to, chains getting long and unwieldy for everyone involved, and allows for “thanks!” emails to get circulated to infinitely more people than actually should be thanked.

Though there are a few times the Reply All button is worth using, it’s not the best way for a group to work together. For every situation, there’s a better tool than email, or at least an improvement on email. Here’s a few of the best:

Working on a Document

Emailing a document back and forth creates tons of emails, tons of different versions of the same document that might be the most recent but probably aren’t, and one huge headache.

Instead, if you’re collaborating on a document, try having that document in a place that will allow you to edit the document, comment on it, and always have the most updated version located in the right place. Google Docs is the simplest and arguably best example; my personal favorite is Buzzword, from Adobe.

These, among other tools, let you keep the document updated, discuss it, and collaborate together without all the complications and version hell that come with sending a PowerPoint back and forth via email.

Managing a Team

One thing email is frequently used for is keeping a group abreast of what’s going on, talking about changes, introducing new people, and so on and so forth. For this, honestly, email’s the best way to handle the situation—it allows people to get all the information in their inbox, without checking something else to get caught up.

That said, there are a number of great applications that add some features to your group email. Basecamp, for instance, keeps a record of all emails sent back and forth centralizing the conversation in one place for future reference. Google Groups lets you create a group of people all on one email list, and one email address emails all the right people (though Groups is notorious for having a bit of a Spam problem). There’s also Tgether, which does essentially the same—creates an email address for a group, and stores the conversations for coming back to later. It’s even easier to set up than Groups, but has a bit of a crippled free option.

If you don’t want to use email for group notifications, try Yammer—it’s essentially Twitter, but for small and closed groups.

Debating an Idea

Sometimes, you need to talk with a number of people about an issue, get feedback and ideas, and come up with something in a quick and collaborative way. For this, email’s about the worst imaginable option. The quickest and most efficient way to get a group talking is via Skype, which lets you call or chat with a group for free, all over the Internet.

There’s also Meebo, an online chat service that integrates with just about any IM service—AIM, GTalk, Yahoo, and more. For the super-temporary users, my personal favorite option is TinyChat, where you can set up a temporary and simple chat room for your purposes, invite anyone you want, and chat via text or voice with up to twelve people.

Email, for all its great features, is woefully inefficient for groups of people working together. Google Wave is the product many people think is going to change all of this, by allowing real-time chat and collaboration in a way that makes sense to everyone, but it’s far from being publicly available. And whether Wave’s the winning card or not, there are plenty of ways to collaborate, talk and work together on the Web that work a whole lot better than hitting the Reply All button in an email.

And, to the next person who says “Thanks!” to someone other than me, but replies to me as well? You’re going down. You’ve been warned.

How do you collaborate and work with others online?

 

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