Online Tools For Collaboration

Women's rowing team in action on the water.Over the last year or so I’ve been involved with two different collaborative projects, each of which has required keeping up with an array of people, tasks, documents, and deadlines. Furthermore, each of these projects involve people I don’t see every day or even every week. As a result, it can be tricky to keep track of who’s doing what by when. Email certainly isn’t the answer. Nor are weekly or bi-weekly meetings in which everyone reminds everyone else what they’re working on. Instead, we’ve come to rely on a combination of online applications focused on the aforementioned tasks, documents, and deadlines. Assuming that communication by phone or email is already worked out, here are a few things one can do to manage collaboration.

An online calendar

Google Calendar is a very user-friendly tool. At the beginning of the semester, map out what you’d like to get done and by when; put those deadlines into the calendar.  If you plan on meeting face to face periodically (or talking on the phone) take a look at everyone’s weekly schedule and plot out your regular meetings or conversations; put those dates and times into the calendar.

Finally, share that calendar with all of your collaborators. If the group decides that a meeting or a deadline needs to be changed, make sure you change it on the calendar. If you work all of this out at the beginning of the semester, you don’t need to waste time in every meeting trying to figure out when you’re going to meet next.

I know this may seem like one of those “Well, duh!” suggestions, but if you’ve already mapped out the entire semester in advance, you’ll be more likely to make your meetings and hit your deadlines. This semester, for example, one set of my collaborators set up our schedule of meetings before the semester even officially started. The following week, as other committees and projects started working to find times for meetings or events, I was able to keep those collaboration meeting times in place and arrange other times for other responsibilities.

An online document editor

Whatever you do, don’t just keep emailing documents back and forth to each other. As Jason has written before, this path leads to sorrow for a variety of reasons. Put all of your documents into something like GoogleDocs and share them with all of your collaborators. This way, documents don’t get lost, and version control is much less of a problem.

Last week I sat at the same table with two other people, putting the finishing touches on a short article we co-authored. We each had our laptops in front of us and the document open in GoogleDocs. It was surprisingly easy to suggest (and make) the necessary changes on the article before we sent it off, certainly much faster and easier than if we had each edited the documents individually and then tried to incorporate all of our edits into one document.

An online task manager

If everyone in your group has an account with Remember The Milk, you can share individual tasks with others. Or you could install a simple todo list script like myTinyToDo on your own server. Alternately, you could create a spreadsheet in GoogleDocs with each row representing a different task and each column representing some element of information about that task:

  • What’s the deadline?
  • Who’s responsible for completing it?
  • What’s the status of the task?
  • Are there any notes associated with the task?

There are many different ways to set up such a to task management system in GoogleDocs: you’ll find some of them here in the “Calendars & Scheduling” section of the GoogleDocs templates gallery. And here’s a (silent) YouTube video demonstrating one such method.

What about you?

These have been just three online tools for collaboration that I’ve made use of over the last few months. I know that there are many more possibilities. What have you found to be effective online (or otherwise!) tools for collaboration?

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by Christopher Schmidt]

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