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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Remote Collaboration

My primary interest here are the methods and tools that allow us to work better as part of remote work teams. In other words -
How do we collaborate together in remote work teams to be as effective or even more effective than a team that works down the hall?
Let me admit that I'm likely in over my head when talking about methods and tools for collaboration. I cannot claim to be an expert, and I feel like this topic demands a lot of soft skills such as communication skills, team skills, handling cultural and work style issues, etc. as well as knowing about tools and methods.

My focus in this post is mostly on the Tool Set and a little bit about methods - as is the focus of this series. So, this post is only a small portion of the answer.

I'm particularly drawing on both personal experience and on experience with the work skills workshops we are offering. At the start of these workshops, we put people into remote work teams. At the core, when I look at what a team needs, it's a pretty simple list:

Real-time
  • Voice
  • Screen Sharing
  • Document Editing (sometimes)
Asynchronous
  • Share / collaborate on documents, web pages
  • Discussion
  • Notification
Of course, I'm simplifying by leaving out things like video chat, recording, etc.

Real-time Voice

I have had great success with a number of tools. So while I'm listing the following because they are good initial choices, there are a lot of Collaboration Tools out there.

Skype - Fantastic voice tool for 1-to-1 as well as conference calls up to 25 people. See: Quick Start Guide for New Skype Users.

Freeconference.com - For times when someone cannot be online, this service works great to establish a quick conference line.

Real-time Screen Sharing

Again, same caveat - lots of great tools that provide screen sharing. A few starting points:

Adobe Connect Now - free online meetings for up to three people.

DimDim - Still a little rough around the edges, but a great, free tool.



Real-time Document Editing

I've had two experiences recently that have really struck me around real-time document editing.

One was having a small (7 person) project team get together on a conference call and have all of us editing the status report real-time via Google Spreadsheets. You could see where people are working. People moved ahead of the conversation and updated status notes so we could skip them. We found we would discuss what needed to be discussed, agree on the next step and see it appear real-time. You leave the meeting with an agreed to status report, action steps, etc. It's truly a thing of beauty.

The other experience I mentioned in Real-Time Collaborative Editing, Robin Good used MindMeister to allow participants to collectively edit a Mind Map during a session at the Learning Trends. It resulted in a great learning experience and a quite good resource.


Asynchronous Content Sharing / Editing

In terms of using these products with remote work teams, Google Spreadsheets seems to have hit the most important items for me. In addition to the real-time editing described above, it also has notifications of changes to people who are collaborating on the document. For some (inexplicable) reason, Google Docs does not.

I also heavily use Wikis, especially when the desired result is a set of web pages. I recommend pbWiki as an easy to use Wiki solution. If you are not familiar with Wikis - here's a quick introduction -


Here are additional resources for people new to Wikis collected as part of the Work Literacy course:
Because I use Delicious as part of my better memory, I like it when work teams use it to share web pages that are relevant to the team. To do that, you must first agree on a tag to use to indicate it's part of the work teams' effort. You should already be doing that individually, this only requires an added step of getting agreement with the group.

The next level of my better memory was taking notes. I mentioned that I either do that through working documents or through a blog. Those exact mechanisms should be extended out to the work team. Blogs are an excellent way to allow the work team to see stream of thought of team members.

Other tools that fit into sharing content:
  • Google Calendar - great calendar tool especially when collaborating on calendars.
  • Xdrive: Online storage to share files.
  • YouSendIt: Clean way to send large files.
  • Flickr: Share and find photos.

Asynchronous Discussion

I personally have found that Ning works great as a tool for all sorts of different needs. Creating a new Ning network is very easy and it gives you a lot of what you would want / need as a work team. Here are a couple of quick guides to getting started on Ning:
Of course, if you've not yet joined some of the existing Learning Communities on Ning, then go do that right now so you are used to how it works.

Work Team Notification

Notification of team members of what's going on with the team is incredibly important. I already mentioned that the fact that Google Docs does not support notification makes it more difficult to use as a solution.

The bottom line on most work teams is that you want to have a reliable notification of changes, discussion, etc. done by the team; to the appropriate channel; with the appropriate frequency. There are two primary notification channels that most work teams wants:
  • Email - periodic or real-time notification of changes.
  • RSS - feed changes into an RSS reader that will be checked as needed
As members of the work team, we should be able to control what goes where and with what frequency.

Teamwork Tips and Skills
If you want a lot more on this, you can go to: http://delicious.com/tag/virtualteams

Other Collaboration Tools

There are a lot of tools that can be considered Collaboration Tools.

Other Posts in the Series

3 comments:

Joitske Hulsebosch said...

Hi Tony, lots of interesting links. I wrote an article about tools for teams (in dutch, don't think you are able to read it :)
which ends with the question whether the tools can make co-located teams more effective. I think that is the real challenge.

Kevin Micalizzi, Dimdim Community Manager said...

Tony-

Thanks for the Dimdim mention. We're constantly improving the experience, if there are things you think we should be doing to make it better, please let me know.

Thanks!

-k
Kevin Micalizzi, Community Manager
Dimdim Web Conferencing / http://www.dimdim.com
e: kevin@dimdim.com / twitter: @meetdimdim
Facebook: http://dimdim.com/facebook

Paul Schneider said...

For web conferencing/sharing you might also want to check out:

https://www.webhuddle.com/