Leadership

10 tools that simplify collaboration

The key to collaborating effectively is to find tools that make working with others easy and efficient. Jack Wallen shares a list of tools that have greatly improved the collaborative process for his projects.

One of the most important things I do as a writer is collaborate. Whether this is with my editor, with another writer, or with a team, the ability to collaborate takes my work from pedestrian to professional like no other aspect of writing. But to gain those benefits, I need to use collaboration tools that enable me to work successfully with others. Here's a list of tools worth checking out.

You might notice that not all tools listed were actually designed specifically for the task of collaboration. Some are communication tools, whereas others serve a much broader purpose. No matter their original purpose, each one makes collaboration much easier. In the end, all that matters is that you can work with your collaborators without having to leave town, host a face-to-face meeting, or run up your phone bill.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Google Docs

That's right. The mighty Google has finally added a level of collaboration to its documents. Google documents now have a discussion feature, which allows the creator of a document to invite participants to collaborate (discuss) on it. What's nice about this feature is that it is in real time and can be saved for later reference. Google docs are gaining ground, people!

2: Track Changes

In both Microsoft Office and LibreOffice, anyone who is collaborating on a document can take advantage of track changes. If you're collaborating on a document in either of these office suites and you aren't using track changes, you have no idea what you are missing. The ability to show what has been changed (and by whom), as well as to easily accept or reject those changes, goes a long way toward streamlining the collaboration process. The only downfall to track changes is that it is not in real time. But not many tools allow you to collaborate in real time on documents.

3: Comments

Another collaboration feature in both Microsoft Office and LibreOffice is the ability to insert comments into text. This is often used in conjunction with track changes to explain a change or ask a question. Anyone who plans on collaborating must have this feature in their toolbox. If you don't use comments, you wind up sticking notes inline -- which often ends badly when the comments are not removed before publication.

4: Gobby/Kobby

Gobby and Kobby offer the same function -- real-time collaboration on text documents in Linux. These tools serve as a sort of chat client with a built-in text editor. The primary audience for both Gobby and Kobby is the developer, but that doesn't mean they can't be used for ordinary document collaboration. The downfall? Neither one supports the most popular word processor formats (such as .doc, .rtf, .and odt).

5: Instant messaging

I know, I know. IM isn't technically a collaboration tool. But if you really think about it, how is it not? You can fire up your document, log on to your instant messaging client, and start chatting with your collaborators in real time about the work. No, you do not see changes as they are made, and any updates to the document are not made for all to see. But the truth of the matter is, the primary function of collaboration is communication, and using an instant messaging tool is a fantastic way to communicate.

6: Zoho

Zoho is an incredible Web-based collaboration tool. With Zoho, you can collaborate via chats, discussions, email, meetings, projects, wikis, and more. There are so many ways that Zoho helps you to collaborate, it would be serious feat to actually use them all for a single project. Although Zoho has a free plan for its service, you get only 1 GB of space for files. But its premium service is only $5 per month, so if you are a frequent collaborator and you're looking for a great Web-based tool to facilitate collaboration, Zoho might be the perfect fit.

7: Campfire

Campfire is another Web-based collaboration tool, but it's aimed at the corporate or enterprise-level crowds. With plans that reach all the way to 100 chatters and 25 GB of storage (a plan that costs $99 per month), Campfire can enable collaboration in larger settings or even classrooms. Campfire also packs in other enterprise-friendly features, such as searchability and an iPhone app for mobile collaboration. An extra benefit of the pricier plans is that they incorporated SSL for higher security.

8: MindMeister

MindMeister is a Web-based mind-mapping tool. Not all collaborators are familiar with (or comfortable with) mind-mapping tools. But for those who are, there is no better way to brainstorm an idea than a mind-mapping tool. Having a tool for mind-mapping available online is a brilliant way to get those ideas out of your head and into reality. MindMeister has three plans: Free (three maps), Premium -- $59 per year (unlimited maps, enhanced security, upload files), and Business -- $9 per month (unlimited maps, edit maps offline, branded subdomain, auto backups). MindMeister also has an app for iPhone and iPad.

9: TextFlow

TextFlow is an online document comparison tool. It allows you to generate change reports from Word and PDF documents. You can compare up to seven documents at once, see the changes in context, view the changes in a summary report, and even view the change history. Although the layout of the changes can take a bit of acclimation, the benefits of using such a tool far outweigh the somewhat awkward layout.

10: Kablink

Kablink is a set of open source, online collaboration tools. The set consists of Teaming, iFolder, and Conferencing. Teaming includes document management, workflow, expertise location, federated search, and a custom Web form generator. ifolder is a secure storage solution similar to that of Dropbox, but it also allows you to invite other iFolder users to share your folders. Conferencing is a real-time meeting solution that allows application sharing, whiteboards, presentations, and more. All three of the Kablink tools are cross platform.

Other tools?

If you try out the tools on this list, you should be able to find a collaboration solution that meets your needs. Although you may have to use a combination of tools, you should be able to find everything you need to get your collaboration up and running with very little effort.

Have you worked successfully with some of these tools? What other solutions would you add to the list?

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

29 comments
robbie1982
robbie1982

Another tool to add to the list is LedgerDocs at http://www.ledgerdocs.com. Built for bookkeepers, accountants and business owners to collaborate more effeciently on their accounting documents. It has many features such as an in browser document viewer and ability to send documents on the go from you smartphone with attached notes. Currently there is a 60 day trial available with no credit card required to start.

ssimona
ssimona

Great list. I would like to add OffBureau (http://www.offbureau.com), an online workspace that fuses online collaboration, document management and a social network. It offers a free plan and has some great features.

matt323
matt323

Here's another new one to try out. Odysen at http://www.odysen.com. Includes a suite of collaboration tools for managing internal and external content, integrated together for efficiency and easy of use. There's a free 30 day trial available to kick the tires, find the plan most appropriate for your group.

catherine.constantinides
catherine.constantinides

I would like to add FeatureSet to this list of collaboration tools: Customer Feedback Management, Requirements Management and Project Management all tied with a Social Collaboration layer. http://www.featureset.com Thanks, Catherine

hheckner
hheckner

Hi. just wanted to add agreedo.com to the list

gechurch
gechurch

As well as SharePoint which has already been mentioned in the comments, I'd add Lync (formerly Office Communicator) to the list. I know Microsoft is a dirty word in Jack's dictionary, but since 90% of the world use Microsoft technologies I think it's a fair addition.

david_tinney
david_tinney

Microsoft OneNote is the a feature rich, extensible, mature collaboration tool

bstsurf
bstsurf

Many of these tools offer little in the way of history, accountability, task assignment and monitoring. Qtask.com offers those that want a little more than just a chat archiving/calendar site.

inventor96
inventor96

I use the free Elluminate Live (which has a limit of 3 people at once) for most conferencing. It includes a whiteboard, video sharing, screen sharing, voice chat (w/ optional webcam video), text chat, built-in web browser (for a syncronized tour of a web site, etc.), a graphing calculator, remote control of other computers (only after aproval from the host), and quiz module, just for starters. And that's just the free version, there's more features in the paid one, plus you can a lot more people at once (I don't remember how many). http://www.elluminate.com/

gatorgal615
gatorgal615

As good as a telephone but on steroids. Collaborate in realtime internationally. Avoids protracted time-consuming projects.

gwjones12
gwjones12

a telephone conversation is much quicker and dynamic. Go old school ;)

Madsmaddad
Madsmaddad

Two very interesting ones there: Huddle, and Sharpcloud

robinsdr
robinsdr

Great article! I would like to add http://www.binfire.com o the list. It is free and has a host of features for project management and collaboration in an easy to use online application. Project management features include tasks & milestones, status reports using secure tweets, document management and user permissions. Collaboration features include interactive real-time whiteboard , group chat plus commenting on tasks and reports.

mjaffrin
mjaffrin

Online productivity applications come with a caveat, though. Although they are fairly feature-rich, they do not have the bells and whistles normally found in proprietary software. In addition, some organizations are not comfortable with the idea of their data being stored in a public cloud (though, of course, that organization can always opt for the more costly private clouds). Regardless of their cons, I still think cloud-based productivity applications are still a great for small businesses. If you need help to choose which cloud-based tools can make your business more productive, check out this selection of application suites and use the filters to narrow the result to the ones that meet your exact needs: http://www.getapp.com/collaboration-tools-software

jolawn
jolawn

Our team uses Google Docs for all of our text-based collaboration, and LucidChart (http://www.lucidchart.com) for the graphical collaboration. Talking about flowcharts and other diagrams.

didods
didods

What about Microsoft Sharepoint Foundation or Server? LOL

robinsdr
robinsdr

Binfire.com keeps and let the user have access to all project's history. The task assignment is unique in that it is using a top down methodology. A project is broken down to major segment and each segment is divided to smaller tasks and so on. It includes status reporting, document management an more!

gechurch
gechurch

Absolutely! I often find myself half-way through an email when I stop and wonder what I'm doing. I pick up the phone instead and often have the issue sorted out 30 seconds later.

robinsdr
robinsdr

The new release of binfire.com coming this week has several features noteworthy. It includes interactive Gantt chart, Collaborative PDF markup tool, Interactive real-time whiteboard, object starring (to follow files or tasks( and much more. A free plan still offered!

ShoePhone
ShoePhone

and it IS pretty slick. We probably are just barely touching its features, sharing documents, creating discussion threads, etc. As an end user, I like it.

Joerg_H
Joerg_H

Microsoft Sharepoint is only usable if (a) you have remote access to the server - e.g. via VPN - and (b) if everyone involved uses Microsoft products. This is certainly not the case for many businesses that rely on external collaborators - think consulting, coaching, training.

gechurch
gechurch

I'm not sure why you've been voted up - you are wrong on both counts. SharePoint is a web app, so it's easy to open up external access. You can also get hosted SharePoint if you'd prefer. Your second point is more true. One of the big strengths of SharePoint is it's integration with Microsoft Office programs. It has significant value even without Office though - the calendar works well through the web interface, document libraries can store any type of document you can think of, and there are tons of web parts that provide all sorts of functionality. None of these things require Office.

QAonCall
QAonCall

SharePoint is available just as google docs is, so the natural comparison is there, plus you can access them both for free (as long as you do not mind google spying on your information), additionally, since this is a 'business' utility paying for services would be an option as well. I assume Jack left off SP since he has an ongoing hate/hate affair with 'pay for software', not because he didn't recognize that SharePoint covers every item on the list, plus much much more! (no offense Jack)

sk8er88
sk8er88

Not true, you could easily use sharepoint externally, and set up a few generic active directory accounts with limited access for collaberation. Sharepoint needs to make this list. Also, you don't need VPN for that.