Saturday, October 3, 2009

Collaborative Saturday

One of the major challenges of running a dispersed, global organization is, literally, keeping everyone on the same page.

Early on, it seemed like I needed to set up project workspaces where people could share background materials, work together on documents, and have discussions in forums. It needed to be reasonably priced, have WSYWIG editors, and support multiple projects. I didn't want to host it, so I needed security and backups. There were "Enterprise Solutions" but big-iron IT gets militaristic and tiresome (not to mention expensive), so I went looking for a friendlier solution.

A web search turned up a wonderful review matrix that captured a big slice of the available systems: it seems to be up-to date (no dead links) and has a good qualifier filter that let me narrow down to about 20 candidates. Some were excluded for price; I tested all of the rest, about 15 systems. There's an interesting spread, from really basic wiki-pages to full-featured collaborative environments. Three seemed to give me the features I wanted. Confluence had a good feature set but the pricing was ten times what I was ready to spend on my projects. PBWorks was very flexible and configurable on everything but their use plans, and there wasn't a way to get the combination of storage and users that I wanted.
This brought me to Brainkeeper.
Note: After playing with the system and inviting users during the 30-day trial period last summer, I paid for a 1-year membership: there's no conflict of interest in these comments.
Brainkeeper lets you organize projects into workspaces; setting permissions and giving users access are readers or authors within their limited space. Workspaces contain trees which are regular, Explorer-style file systems with documents and files. Documents can be edited using a very serviceable visual editor, and version changes are kept along with notes. RSS feeds and e-mail notices keep people up to date with what is going on and recent activity is displayed in the Dashboard when you log in. Templates can be saved as a basis for documents, helping with re-use of outlines, and the hypertexting within documents sets up when Word documents with headers are imported. The export is weaker, only .pdf is supported and images don't reproduce correctly.

It's possible to set up blogs and forums, but I disabled those functions to keep the space simple. Files uploaded can only be downloaded, not displayed, which is an interruption to workflow, and tables can't easily be sized to fit in the page provided. That was really the first breach of the space for me: I prepared a competitive landscape with photos of products, links, and descriptions, and then found that I couldn't export or extend it. I ended up cutting and pasting into excel and starting to exchange the file as e-mail. There is an excel-like "Smartsheet" feature that I tried to use as a tasklist, but it has very limited functionality and turned out to be more trouble than it's worth. User and access controls were easy to set and I can keep everyone sequestered in their own garden.
The pricing is very reasonable, and the support folks have been responsive when I have a question. I like the document collaboration best, and could probably warm up to the Forums as a way to discuss an issue. The biggest headache has been to entice people to use it. Generally, people like exchanging Word files with markups, and it's been difficult to bring them into a wiki-world. One client has given it a try but became frustrated trying to export copies that he could print. Another travels too much to connect and do the work on-line: he needs offline access to the space and sync on connect when he lands.
Collaborative workspaces are a great idea, and Brainkeeper does a lot that's right. The tools are evolving quickly, and should improve with time: handling and export of multimedia content seems to be the most ragged part. At the same time, it's a new way of working, and people trying to get daily work done may be reluctant to join if it doesn't naturally fit their style.
Opening Photo Credit: VizWorld


Textual Healer said...

Um what's a competeitive landscape???

Dave Hampton said...

Drat...still a bit of CorpCo left in my vocabulary...sorry.

The goal is to own a market with your product; to be the soluution of choice when the customer has a particular problem. So, you have to look at all of the other ways that they currently haveo solve that problem: I create a matrix with all of the products down the axis and all of their relevant qualities across each row.

Fr example, if you feel your heart thumping and worrry whether it's serious, you can buy a little recorder that saves ECG when you hold it between your hands or press it to your chest, you can wear something on your belt with wires to your chest, you could stick something onto the chest itself. All those products have different attributes, advantages, disadvantages. That's the landscape. Then you arrow the new product into the gap (ideally).