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.