Hanging out in meet space: Tools for online collaboration

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Hanging out with other humans is what humans like to do best. And, we have hundreds of ways and places to do it. So, it is strange that so many organizations have dreadful intranets that make hanging out as easy as a shoe-fitting at a mermaid convention.

For many companies, intranets are nothing more than PDF graveyards. Even organizations that pride themselves on collaboration have internal web spaces with no place for discussion, sharing or creating together.

Sometimes that's because IT departments are primarily concerned with managing the haphazard files spit out by what they see as an unruly band of cubicle monkeys pounding away at Microsoft Office. And between that, solving the same monkeys' mundane hardware issues, dealing with legal and government compliance and sweating the details on security, there's no time to think about something as thorny and organic as discussion forums or wikis.

Sometimes it's because the organization is afraid that conversation amongst staff will foment or fuel unrest, or that the moderation of discussion forums will take time away from HR or communications, or IT or however is charged with that oversight.

And, sometimes it's just because managers don't know that there is a wide world out there beyond resource management structures and Sharepoint. But there is.

I'm a big fan of Basecamp, a great online product that has a short, easy learning curve and lets teams share text documents, files, discussions, calendars and to-dos. It has very powerful mobile apps and a robust tagging system that makes finding files natural and simple.

My favourite feature is the ease with which plain text documents can be collaboratively created. If you're using documents for print, online and web apps all at the same time, having a plaintext, canonical document that lives in one place is a godsend.

I'm also a fan of wikis. My favourite is a made-in-Canada wiki called Project Forum. A wiki is a simple collaborative workspace in which team members can read and write web pages. The spaces created in wikis like Project Forum are generally organic and the team creating them is self-sufficient. That is, they can edit, create, comment on and erase pages and whole fora, without IT support. They tend not to be the prettiest of group spaces, but they are the most flexible.

Then, there is a fascinating tool that is the darling of Silicon Valley startups, Slack. Slack is less a collaborative space, than a powerful chat tool that has robust file archiving and searching baked into it. For small, creative teams, it's a great alternative to a product like Basecamp.

And, there is a suite of new collaborative spaces that have a sparse, modern feel. They combine the flexibility of wikis with the good looks of contemporary apps. I'm thinking of products like asana, and the Canadian-made Igloo. Asana has more of a project management focus, while Igloo is not only a great way to set up collaborative spaces for a variety of teams inside a company, but is also a terrific extranet tool. So, a company can use it to work on projects with remote suppliers, consultants and partners.

Or, you could just head back into the dank archives of your long-dead PDFs and blow the dust off a few. But, if that's your company's idea of collaboration, you're riding in the wrong rowboat, friend.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Caro's Lines/flickr

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