We all know that working together is hard. Very, very hard. I have worked on projects with dozens of people from across the globe: different cultures, different time zones, different expectations. I have also worked at companies that only had a handful of people working out of the same office. In both situations, it was hard to get everyone on the same page and make sure everyone was collaborating in a way that would result in success.
Software companies have recognized the difficulty -and opportunity- in getting us to work together. They have created a massive marketplace of tools guaranteed to get us and our teams collaborating. Now the problem is picking the right tool. Do you need chat or asynchronous threaded conversations? Do you need specialized products? Or a do-it-all platform? Isn’t email a collaboration tool, and is there any value in replacing it?
Even with all the tools out there, here is something we have learned over the years: Effective collaboration isn’t about the tools. At least not at first. Effective collaboration starts with the problem; to pick the right tools for working together, you first have to understand the problem.
Collaboration software solves three basic problems:
The first step to picking the right tool is knowing which problem you have. Is your team having difficulty communicating? Are they unable to build on each other’s work? Or are clients getting frustrated because your teams can’t organize their time, tasks, and resources?
Let’s say your team is having trouble communicating. Maybe some of them are in Guadalajara and some work out of Chicago. Maybe they are in different buildings, but working at the same time. They might even work side-by-side. These different scenarios present different challenges, each with a specific kind communication solution.
One-to-One, Real-Time Communication
If your team is in the same time zone and they need to ask each other quick questions as they work, office instant messaging tools like Microsoft Skype or Google Hangouts are possible solutions. These tools provide people with a way to send and receive quick, informal messages without the time and effort of composing an email.
Many-to-Many, Asynchronous Communication
What if your teams are on different continents? Or maybe they need to include other people in the conversation? Slack, Microsoft Yammer, and Salesforce Chatter are asynchronous (not happening at the same time) communication tools that organize conversations by topic. Topics can be subscribed to, so people get visibility into just the information they need. They also allow for private messaging, so conversation threads don’t get derailed. Slack has the added feature of integrating with many other tools to make it a single place to go for information and conversations.
But “wait!”, you say. “We don’t just talk; we build things!” There are applications for that as well. From simple, concurrent document editing to complex, multi-team and multi-branch software development there are a host of options available. There are specialized creation tools for nearly any occupation, here are some examples going from broad use to more specialized use:
Document sharing and concurrent document editing
Microsoft Office 365, Google Documents, and Dropbox allow you to share documents with other people and edit those documents together in real-time. Each of them also has built-in chat capabilities, so you can talk through changes with fellow collaborators without leaving the document you are editing.
Product and Concept Building
For designers, tools like InVision, Adobe Creative Cloud, and Proto.io are great platforms for collaborating on concepts. Proto.io is used to build application and website prototypes then share those prototypes with collaborators, testers and end users for feedback. Adobe Creative Cloud includes a full suite of design products and allows users to share projects and grant collaborators access to projects with granular control over rights, ranging from view-only to full editing capabilities. InVision, a wireframing and concept development application, even has a digital-whiteboard style feature, allowing teams to build, edit, and mark up concepts in real-time.
Software Developers can use purpose-built collaboration tools like Beanstalk or Github, which allow multiple development teams to work on the same project at the same time. These tools are used by teams to write, review and test, and deploy code. They can be used to manage a simple code base with multiple contributors or more complex projects that involve many teams developing on branches and merging or integrating their new code into a “trunk,” or shared master repository.
Of course, many of us just need some help organizing schedules, tasks, and resources. There are a lot of moving parts in our workflows today, and there are products that can manage a slice –or all- of those workflows.
The simplest of these are built to solve one specific challenge, like Wunderlist and YouCanBook.me. Wunderlist is a tool for managing to-do lists that enables users to create to-do lists, share those lists with other team members, and assign tasks. YouCanBook.me is a calendar management tool that allows other people to find open times on your calendar for the purpose of scheduling meetings without the back and forth of finding an open time.
The next level of group calendar and task management are more fully-featured applications like Microsoft Outlook or Google Calendars. These offer a broader range of features, but are still relatively simple to set up and share. They both include shared calendars and task lists, as well as integrating with other tools like email clients and project management applications.
If your team is working on complex projects, especially those involving participants from outside the organization, they may need a project management application. Applications like Basecamp and Trello provide very different ways for teams to manage schedules, tasks, and resources. They are built on different project management methodologies, which one you pick just depends on how your teams like to work. For enterprise projects that require more powerful reporting and tracking like burn-down and Gantt charting, you may need to look at Microsoft Project, Asana, or Clarizen.
Now that you know which problem(s) you are solving, you have to decide how you want to solve the problem. Do you want one tool that solves every problem – a platform? Or just one tool that solves a specific problem? If you have a favorite tool, can it be used for other collaboration tasks? And what about customizing a tool?
Platform Versus Tool
Microsoft’s Office 365 and Salesforce are platforms that include communication, creation, and organization capabilities rolled into one. Tools like Wunderlist are focused on one thing: task management. Depending on the problem you need to solve, you might only need a simple task-focused solution, for which a platform would be overkill in terms of cost and time-to-learn.
Most of the products mentioned in this article are expanding their capabilities to serve a broader range of collaboration needs. Dropbox, for example, used to be an easy way to share files. Dropbox added the capability for concurrent editing within their document sharing platform. Evernote, formerly a note-taking tool for individuals, now has the ability to share files and folders as well as chat with other collaborators from within the application. Trello, a Kanban-based project management application, also has basic document sharing capabilities (but not co-authoring). These companies will continue to build more features and capabilities that might allow you to get by without purchasing a large-scale platform.
Building custom software is hard to do well, but with the integration tools available (like Zapier), you might be able to build a custom collaboration platform by connecting off-the-shelf products. For example, you can integrate a project management tool, like Trello, to a communication tool, like Slack. There are new integrations being created almost daily, allowing you to build a best-of-breed platform and quickly add or remove capabilities as technology and your team’s needs evolve.
There are a lot of tools that can help your teams work better together. To take advantage of these tools, you need to understand the problems you are trying to solve, then work backward to find the right application or platform to solve that problem. While there are tools that solve very specific problems and tools that solve every problem, you are not limited to either one. You can piece together a powerful platform that fits your specific needs using easy to use integration tools.
Having trouble finding the right collaboration tools to make your teams more productive? Let us know. We can help you understand what type of collaboration tools you need and find the best product for your organization.