Comparing Options for Collaboration Software
If you’re looking for software tools that can help your group collaborate, you’ll find a lot of options. There are many different types of solutions that support many different types of needs. This article compares your options.
Let’s say you’re looking for software that can help a group work together despite being spread out in different geographical locations. There are a lot of solutions that can help, ranging from from Web conferencing and email discussion lists to project management tools and online communities.
These options are all very different from each other, but each has notable strengths and weaknesses when it comes to supporting collaboration. For example, simple tools may not provide all the features you’d like, but more complex ones will require setup time and training that may not make sense for your group.
So how do you decide which solution is best for your needs? Let’s take a look at what’s out there and what different features each tool offers.
What Types of Software Exist?
First off, let’s run through the types of collaboration tools that might be helpful to you based on the different working scenarios your situation may present.
For Informal Conversations and Presentations
- Conference Calls—tools that connect multiple callers on one phone line, for example, Freeconferencecall.com
- Video Conferencing—conference calls that also display video of one or all callers, such as WebEx and some hardware solutions.
- Online Conferencing—conference calls with an online component, such as shared slides, documents, videos and/or screen sharing. GoToMeeting and WebEx, among others, provide this functionality.
For Information Sharing
- Email Discussion Lists—email groups, facilitated by tools like Yahoo! Groups or Electric Embers, that let participants easily email everyone in the group.
- Existing Social Networking Sites—online networking sites, like Facebook or MySpace, where users can create profiles and connect with others.
- Collaborative Documents—users share and edit documents online, either over time or in real-time, in a tool like Google Docs.
- Message Board—online forums focused around questions and answers, such as tools like vBulletin and phpBB.
For Longer Term Structured Collaborations
If your group is going to be working together over a period of time, it can be worthwhile to set up more-sophisticated collaboration environments. These tools will take more time to set up and to learn to use, but provide more structured functionality to help team members work together effectively.
- Online Project Management Tools—users share documents, calendars, tasks and structured conversations, using software like Basecamp or Central Desktop.
- Online Community—users share profiles, documents, calendars, message boards and more. Online applications like Ning or KickApps let you build this type of custom community.
- Wiki—a collaborative Web site, where all who can view can also edit, using a tool like Confluence or MediaWiki.
- Blog Network—a community of linked blogs where users interact with posts and comments. Any blog tool, like WordPress or TypePad, will support this.
How Do You Choose?
These options come with trade-offs that aren’t always clear. Easy-to-use tools often don’t allow for easy documentation and archiving of conversations, for instance, while more structured tools generally require significant up-front time to set up and define the processes that will help your group succeed.
Before you decide, it’s important to think through some key considerations about what will work best for your group. The following criteria can help you narrow down your options.
- Software Cost. Cost is always a factor, but less so in this area than most. Many options are free; others start at less than $20 per month or so. Keep in mind, however, that there can be a big difference between the minimum you could possibly pay (which is what we look at in the chart below) and the price you will pay for more robust options.
- Discussions in Real Time. For some conversations, it’s critical to have everyone together at once. But in other situations—for instance, to accommodate different schedules or time zones—it can be useful to let participants think and weigh in at their convenience.
- Ease of Setup. Some of these collaboration methods require almost no setup—just pick up a phone or fill out a quick screen and you’re ready to go. Others require days or weeks of planning, especially to define the processes needed to ensure successful collaboration.
- Participant Ease-of-Use. The easier a system and process is for your participants, the more likely they’ll actually use it. Don’t underestimate the work needed to train users and get them to buy in on software that requires them to use unfamiliar tools or change their current processes.
- Central Document Storage. If you want to create or share documents across your team, it can be useful to have a central place to store them all. A number of methods let you post links or share files, but fewer help you organize or find them again later.
- Conversation Archive. A year from now, will you have any idea why you made a certain decision? A tool with solid archiving and documentation features lets you to store conversations and then find them again later.
- Structured Conversations. The ability to collect all discussion about a particular topic in one place, or to break down a discussion into component parts, can be useful to those looking for tools to help in gathering input and making decisions.
- Support for Personal Relationships. Some methods help you share relevant background information and hold discussions that really feel like conversations. Others prioritize process over relationships, and make it harder to get to know your fellow participants.
How do these considerations stack up across the options? We’ve put together this handy chart to help you compare.
A lot of different kinds of software tools can help your group work together effectively. It’s not always obvious what will work best for you. Try to resist the urge to choose quickly based on what has worked for another group, as needs in this area can vary considerably. Think through your needs, hold them up against the available options, and you’ll find the software package that can support true and useful collaboration on your own terms.
For More Information
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As Idealware’s Founder and Executive Director, Laura S. Quinn directs Idealware’s research and writing to provide candid reports and articles about nonprofit software. Prior to Idealware, Laura provided website strategy, navigation, and online knowledge management consulting for nonprofits. Laura is a frequent speaker and writer on nonprofit technology topics.
Many thanks to Cause Communications for their partnership on this project. Cause is is a leader in education, capacity building and thought leadership on communications for social change. They also provide research and an evaluative tool for nonprofit networks: Network Collaborations: Playing Well With Others.