Virtual Collaboration Tools for Networks, Participation, Transparency

A survey of a half dozen global networks revealed that their use of virtual collaboration tools is amazingly rudimentary.  A couple of colleagues and I discovered that when identifying tools for GOLDEN to use.  We wanted virtual platforms to support three functions:  contact management, document collaboration, and project planning.  And we had to think how this would impact our current web-site, which includes a community portal.  

I find astonishing the low level of collaboration software use in global networks.  Email and google docs are okay for simple or adhoc 

engagements, but how can valuing “transparency” and “participation” not lead networks to use something more sophisticated?  Our survey revealed only use of google docs and email  is common, plus some central office use of Sharepoint and Salesforce – proprietary, expensive and quite complex programs.  Are people just overwhelmed by the options?  Don’t they appreciate what’s possible?  Is it simple inertia?  Are the network leaders simply too old of fuddie duddies that they are afraid of it (thinking of the old days when executives had their secretaries write their emails)? 

We went through three stages of exploration.  First I wanted to bring myself up to speed on how to “think” and “talk” about the options – mental frameworks and language are so important for asking the right questions!  Although I wanted professional advice, I first wanted to be able to understand the basic concepts and important questions.  I went through web searches…Wikipedia has great pages on some of the overall concepts, and lists of actual options (donate to Wikipedia!);  there’s also a useful comparison matrix

This is when overload and confusion set in, as I knew it would.  So I started looking at some specific options that either I previously had used with others, or that turned up with positive reviews.  I discovered some are designed with a central organization in mind – where people can be forced to use them in a hierarchical situation as their only electronic communications infrastructure.  For the open networks I work with like GOLDEN, that won’t work.  Something intuitive and easily accessible is needed – something that is an easy addition that fits within a daily worklife where the network might take 10 percent or less of a person’s time. 

I identified three different options to look into more closely:  ActiveCollab, HyperOffice, and Huddle.  These were chosen to include two key options:  one is to buy a license to a software and to place that software on a GOLDEN’s server (ActiveCollab);  the other is to buy into a hosted service on a per user basis (Huddle, HyperOffice).  Table 1 presents a comparison of these options.    

I identified some key questions such as:  price?  What’s the structure?  How are documents organized?  Is the “search” function robust?  is there a good “help” function? And then I tried out the three options to answer the questions and create a matrix with the answers.

Now I felt prepared to have intelligent conversations.  I brought together to help me a GOLDEN colleague at Aarhus University in Denmark, Nina Hejlskov, and Brandon Johnson of Spadewerk who helps with GOLDEN’s web development.  We did some further investigation – including the dismal survey of networks – and ended up with two choices:  Podio, a new offering coming out of Denmark, and HyperOffice which has been around for quite a few years.  One reason these two stood out is because they combine all three functions – most options are just for one of the three such as document collaboration. 

You can read our short report with four recommendations, including selecting HyperOffice.  Major considerations are the ease of access of HyperOffice for document collaboration.  Of course this isn’t to say that is the right choice for others – everyone has particular needs!

This also led us to rethink our community portal, which is the part of our web-site restricted to community members.  GOLDEN is a young network, and this compounds issues that most networks find with portals that are not actively managed:  people don’t use them.  Consequently, we decided to discontinue it and put our effort into HyperOffice development, promoting registration for a blog and newsletter, and a more modest discussion forum.   

Comment from Nina Hejlskov

I like your blog entry a lot – I think it sums up at lot of good things. One thing that came into mind for me is the “cultural” aspect, meaning how familiar are the users with this kind of software, the web and how willing are they to use it. The theory of cognitive surplus by Clay Shirky was one of my first thoughts. (See:  Cognitive Surplus:  How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators)

I agree that support from leaders are extremely important, but being able to engage (not demand) members to use these tools are just as important and maybe even the biggest hurdle.

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