group collaboration solutions

One problem that comes up semi-frequently in our lives is managing other people. Even if we are not managers at work, we may need to organize people in other parts of our lives. Our family, our friends, a church group or any group based on hobbies or common interests. You may not even realize that you have a need for tools and solutions. You can help others see the light of good organization and easy communication.

I’m mostly going to focus on solutions for casual, common-interest type groups like a writers club or a small-group. You may have several different needs to focus on, but I’m going to mostly bypass the business uses for these solutions even though many of these ideas can be used in the workplace as well.

Communication

Firstly, you need ways to communicate. Many people just use text messages and ad-hoc mass emails. There are several problems with this. When you are interacting with people, there are many things that can go wrong. A little organization and control can go a long ways.

List-serve or email lists

This is an older method of communicating that is surprisingly effective. There are several providers of these kinds of lists, but they offer the following functionality.

  • One central email address to remember that everyone sends and replys to.
  • You can set up a list or authorized members on a list.
  • Email addresses and membership status is kept private to the group or to the administrators.
  • Emails from any member to the central list address will be relayed to every member of the list.
  • Sub-groups can be created for segments of the larger list.
  • Moderation options for un-trusted users.
  • Or invite-only list membership.
  • These features cover my preferred way to coordinate a group of less than 50. I like to get a good mailing list set up first. It makes the biggest difference to the effectiveness of a group’s communication.

    Here are a few group collaboration web service providers to consider:

  • Google Groups
  • Yahoo Groups
  • Groupspaces.com
  • OnlineGroups.net
  • Self-Hosted or Advanced Tools

  • GroupServer
  • GNU Mailman (comes with many CPanel web hosting packages)
  • My Recommendation

    I tried to use Google Groups for quite a while. Eventually, I chose Groupspaces.com for two of my groups. Their user interface is excellent. Their calendar event management and email database management tools are top notch. One disadvantage is that they don’t record all your group emails and let you search or browse them from the web interface like the other services do. They do, however, host a basic public facing group site which may take care of all your public and private website needs.

    Group Spaces Admin UI The Administrative User Interface shows much of the available functionality.

    Many people use meetup to start and advertise their public groups. This is a good option if your group is local, and open to outside people and wants to grow.

    Note: Don’t change services too often, this annoys people and confuses them. Switching group mailing list addresses is a real pain point for a long time.

    Forums and More

    If you have a group of people that is larger and will carry on conversations in a wide range of topics, then you may want to consider a forum. There is good forum software, and then there is Discourse which is excellent forum software.

    If you buy a decent hosting package that gives you access to cPanel you can probably install phpBB or another bulletin board system fairly easily.

    Another interesting option is a chat room. If people might drop in and out and carry out real-time discussions you can easily offer a chat room. Slack is a really popular option right now, and they offer a very generous free plan. Hall.com is another good chat room provider that I have used. Slack probably has a better user interface, and many people are already using it. Old-school IRC is an option for the truly nerdy among us. Enough said about IRC.

    One nice thing about Slack is that it will notify people on their smart phones of new messages in certain channels, so you can have an announcements channel, or an important channel for primary discussions, then move less important or relevant conversations to side channels, including private invite only channels. I use slack quite a bit at work now instead of instant messages and email.

    My Recommendation

    Don’t bother unless you are sure there is a real need. You should try Slack first, it‘s free and easy.

    Newsletters

    Newsletters make sense for larger groups and for groups that are primarily focused on unidirectional communication. I really recommend MailChimp for newsletters. Their interface is very clear, and their free plan allows lists up to 2000 people. If you want to really make your newsletters pop, browse through their free templates or buy a nice template from a place like creativemarket.com. Something customized off the shelf will really professionalize your newsletters. If you are still sending out word documents as attachments… stop! Convert that Word doc to a PDF or take the time to format it into a nice email interface like the one MailChimp offers. Email newsletter design from scratch is a dark art, but using a pre-built template cane make it easy for even beginners.

    If you have a really large list and want to go the self-hosted route you can try http://sendy.co/. It will probably be more complicated than MailChimp, but if you are a power user, you can go this route and maintain more control of your list and the end user’s experience.

    Rotations and Assignments Management

    When you share the load of work with a group of people and need to maintain a consistent schedule of who is doing what and when many people fall back to a spreadsheet or a calendar. A shared Google calendar might be a good solution for you, or a shared Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) Spreadsheet document might work also. These allow basic collaboration and are flexible enough for many uses.

    In the church world people often use PlanningCenterOnline.com this works well for worship services, but is both too much and too little when it comes to smaller groups doing work across a week.

    Recommendation

    I think I found the perfect web application for rotating and assigning service opportunities for the church group I am a part of. GoAssign.com offers the best interface for setting up tasks and schedules for a group of people. It will send out reminders in email or text, and it can give people the option to accept or reject an assignment. It also has a place for people to set their vacation dates so they don’t get scheduled. The free plan is limited to 15 users.

    Websites

    This topic could be huge but there are really only a few options that I see. One is to use Square Space. They provide excellent website building tools and very good design templates, their prices start at $8 per month. My other favorite option is a Wordpress website. A website hosted at wordpress.com will work, and it’s free if you don’t need a custom domain name, but if you get a shared hosting plan you can get a lot more power for very little money.

    Shared Linux hosting is a very powerful tool for small groups. The traffic requirements of your group will (probably) never be very high so you are unlikely to run into the technical constraints of the cheapest plans, which start around $8 per month at places like BlueHost, DreamHost, or GoDaddy. The site (http://www.hostbenchmarker.com/ has some good comparison information).

    It‘s common with these plans to receive a large number of email addresses, features like list serves, file storage, FTP, forums, image galleries, WordPress, or your own Wiki.

    Installing WordPress is quite easy. WordPress is a powerful website management tool, and is probably one of the most widely used pieces of web software around. It’s certainly not fool-proof, but it‘s very powerful. So far, every time I try to use something else to manage content for a website, I end up wishing I had just stuck with WordPress.

    There are many thousands of themes available for free and for purchase around the web. I already mentioned Creative Market, but I can also recommend ThemeZilla, and WooThemes. Paying for a good quality, customizable and unique theme feels good, you won’t regret it.

    My Recommendations

    If you are a technical novice and just want something that works, go with SquareSpace.

    But, I recommend looking at your needs and seeing if a shared hosting plan with cPanel and these other features will fit your group needs more completely. I recommend you buy a domain name, point it at your own privately hosted WordPress site and set up a list-server on your hosting account too. I am working on a guide to buying and configuring your domain name, coming soon.

    If you are trying to go completely free, then you can start with an account at wordpress.com.

    Project and Task Management

    Email is the usual tool we turn to when we need to work together to accomplish goals or finish projects. That’s fine, but there are better ways. The project and task management market is huge! If you want to collaborate effectively with small teams, the options become a little more focused. I can’t even begin to cover all the project management tools I have tried. Luckily one thing has always come to the top and survived all of my most discerning and critical collaborators. Trello is a project collaboration tool and so much more. The idea is based on moving cards around a board. Invited members can collaborate on any type of tasks together on the project board.

    Best of all it’s free for every user. There are paid business account available but the free accounts are not hobbled in an significant way.

    So, that’s the simplest recommendation of this whole article, use Trello. There are literally hundreds of other options, but since I cannot get into all the little details to compare them, I’m taking the easy way out and recommending Trello for pretty much everything.

     

    Today I'm going to talk about where to store your files. This isn't just about backups, this is where you store files for frequent access and syncing between machines and devices. These solutions also usually enable you to collaborate and share files with people across the internet.

    You shouldn’t have to worry about which computer or device a file was created on, it should be available everywhere all the time. This is the theory behind cloud computing for the consumer. All your important files are available in a cloud service that syncs all those files to every computer. You don’t have to worry about backing up those particular files and folders either, because if one device goes away, you can still get the files from the copy stored in the cloud or another computer. And, all of the good solutions have apps that allow you to do varying amounts of work on those files from your smartphone or tablet. In fact, until recently the cloud storage service Dropbox was the de-facto file system for getting real work done on the iPhone or iPad. Apple has remedied this somewhat with their newest iCloud offerings and better integrations in iOS8.

    So, without further ado, here are the options I have researched or used personally.

    NamePriceDifficultyProsCons
    Dropbox2GB for free
    1TB for $9.99 per month
    EasyWell known. Good sharing tools. Reliable performance.Some privacy concerns.
    OneDrive15GB Free
    100GB $1.99 per month
    1TB $9.99 per month and it includes Office 365
    EasyBest value if you need MS Office anyway.Relative Newcomer. Privacy.
    Google Drive15GB for free
    1TB for $9.99 Month
    EasyExcellent value. Connected to Google Docs productivity apps.Google’s privacy and advertising concerns.
    iCloud Drive5GB free
    200GB $3.99/mo
    1TB $19.99/mo
    EasyInstalled by Default with latest versions of iOS and OS XMac Only
    Synology (+Apps)Up Front at least $375 one time for 2TB.AdvancedPowerful. Reliable. Private. Media server, web server and so much more.Higher self-maintenance time requirements. High up front costs.
    File Transporter$99 + USB drive
    $199 for 500GB
    $349 for 2TB
    IntermediatePrivacy. Convenience. One time costs. Ability to sync with offsite units for automated backups.If you want backups you need to buy two and put one in a friend’s house.
    SpaceMonkey$190 up front + $50/year for 1TBIntermediatePrice and Value. Privacy. Distributed consumer cloud.Newer company.
    ownCloud(hosting plans available through 3rd parties)$3.50/mo 10GB
    $8/mo for 100GB
    Or Self Hosted Hardware starting at $175 one-time.
    AdvancedOpen Source project.Open source project. Higher level of self-maintenance.
    CozyCloudSelf Hosted Hardware starting at $175 one-time.AdvancedOpen source project.Open source project. Higher level of self-maintenance.

    These possible solutions are not all there is out there. I have used a service called PogoPlug in the past, but it appears to be sliding into the abandoned state. And this is a space which has a lot of newcomers popping up all the time. Individuals and companies are actively working on solving this problem better and better all the time. But beware of services that start up and then die quickly. You need to be flexible, but don’t trust any of your data to only one provider. Diversify.

    You get so much for free right now it’s hard to not just use all the big players for their free storage and not worry about anything in the intermediate or advanced difficulty levels. But, it’s worth thinking about the reason those companies offer free services. Google wants our eyeballs in their applications. Microsoft is trying to figure out how to monetize this service still, but they will find a way. Dropbox isn’t focused on advertising, but that doesn’t mean your data is private with them either.

    Private Cloud Options

    All of the self-hosted cloud options are interesting. You can spend a little more up front for a lot of additional privacy and freedom. But there is some extra work and some lost convenience involved too. I am, of course, a big fan of the Synology DiskStations. These devices give you the power to host your own cloud services that are available to you anywhere not just at home. And the DistStation has the power to be so many other things like a media server, web server, jukebox, and time capsule.

    If you don’t need the power of a Synology, and you don’t feel like hosting, installing and configuring a solution like ownCloud or CozyCloud on your own server, then you still have options.

    The File Transporter and SpaceMonkey are both very appealing. The SpaceMonkey is unique because it copies your data into small chunks that get encrypted and distributed across the entire network of spacemonkey devices. This is a great distributed internet storage model, I’ll be very interested to see if it works, because it could really simplify offsite backups of your data. The File Transporter is well regarded as a good value for people who need a lot of storage in the cloud and want privacy as well. I haven’t personally used either of them.

    Recommendations

    It’s a little complicated right now, but my recommendation for most people is Dropbox and iCloud if you use iOS, Microsoft OneDrive if you use a PC, and Google Drive if you use Android or a PC but don’t need Microsoft Office productivity applications. But, don’t pay for any of them if you don’t have to. If you need more space than they offer in their free options, and if you care about your privacy at all, try a Synology DiskStation or a SpaceMonkey. For me the best combination right now would be free Dropbox and the Synology DS214se with 2 x 2TB WD Red hard drives. (The DS214+ with 2 x 3TB hard drives is even more powerful.) When you have your Synology search the app store for DS Video, DS Audio, DS Photo+, and DS Files. These apps are surprisingly good and actively developed.