For larger businesses, a social network group probably won’t suffice. What you need instead is a collection of web-based collaborative tools that help your team members not only communicate with each other but also manage their group projects.
This type of solution is commonly known as groupware, and when it’s based in the cloud it’s called online groupware. In a nutshell, groupware is collaboration software for workgroups. Online groupware does away with the physical constraints of traditional groupware, letting members from throughout an organization, in any location, access group assets.
File and document uploading and sharing
Text-based chat rooms / instant messaging
Wiki-like collaborative pages
Why use online groupware? First of all, it puts all your group communications (and, in some cases, files) all in one place—and that one place is accessible to group members in any location, as long as they have an Internet connection. Second, groupware makes it easier to communicate, which should reduce the number of meetings and conferences calls, as well as your email traffic. Finally, all this should increase your group’s collective and members’ individual productivity. It’s as simple as that.
For example, suppose you’re managing a community not-for-profit group. You can use online groupware to connect other managers and volunteers across the community. You can share plans, proposals, and other documents with all members, and use the groupware to solicit and receive proposals and invoices from suppliers. And, best of all, you can do this from your own computer, which means fewer phone calls, car trips, and unnecessary meetings—all of which translates into less time involved and fewer expenses, both of which are important for charities.
AirSet (www.airset.com) provides a cloud-based website for your group. Your AirSet site can include group announcements, a web calendar, contact list, task list, instant messaging, wiki for collaborative publishing, blog, file sharing and online storage, photo albums, and music playlists. And with all these tools, when one person in the group makes a change, everyone else sees the updated information.
ContactOffice (www.contactoffice.com) is a web-based data management system that lets you share emails, contacts, tasks, appointments, and documents with other group members. You can create internal or intercompany groups; the latter helps you communicate with customers, suppliers, and other people outside your immediate office. You also get a web-based calendar, address book, message forum, and real-time chat. (Figure 1 shows the ContactOffice’s “virtual office” dashboard page.)
Figure 1. ContactOffice’s “virtual office.”
Google Sites (sites.google.com), formerly known as Jotspot, lets you create a group web page (hosted by Google), like the one shown in Figure 2. This page is completely customizable with your choice of file uploads, group announcements, task/project management, mailing lists, group calendar, and the like. Google Sites also integrates with Google’s other online apps, including Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, and Google Talk. And, as with most things Google, it’s completely free.
Huddle (www.huddle.net) is a hosted environment that combines online collaboration, project management, and document sharing, using social networking principles. You create a network of collaborative team workspaces, managed from a central dashboard. You can then take advantage of Huddle’s online file storage, project calendar, RSS and email notifications, whiteboard, wiki, and other collaborative tools.
Nexo (www.nexo.com) lets you create a free personalized group website. The site can include photos, videos, forums, message boards, interactive calendars, polls, and to-do lists. Nexo targets its service to family, friend, and community groups, although it may also function for some less-demanding business groups. (Figure 3 shows a sample site for a youth sports team.)
OpenTeams (www.openteams.com) is better suited for larger businesses. It offers team folders, blogging, and wiki-like collaborative pages, all monitored via a customizable Navigator page, shown in Figure 4. From here you can keep track of key team members, organize resources with tags, participate in threaded discussions, and monitor new content posted by team members. Pricing is on a per-user, per-use basis, starting at $0.99 per user log-on day.
ProjectSpaces (www.projectspaces.com) provides an online workspace designed especially for group collaboration. You get an online document library, email discussion lists, task management, group announcements via email and RSS, a shared group calendar, and shared group documents.
Our final online groupware application is called teamspace (www.teamspace.com), with a lowercase t. This application offers task and project management, contact management, an online calendar, message forum, notice board, file sharing, text-based chat, and synchronization with Microsoft Outlook. Pricing is on a per-member basis, with additional fees for storage space used.