Chapter 2 Work With Fellow Travelers Collaboration Tools

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John Savage

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Introduction

If your job requires you to write, it is likely that you will collaborate with others. The dynamic of your writing shifts when this happens. You will need two things in order make this happen effectively: social skills and collaboration tools. This chapter guides you down the path of becoming a successful collaborator by exploring both of these dimensions.

Remember this as you read this chapter: do not choose a collaborative tool just because it has great features. Each tool is ideal for some situations and impractical for others. If you choose a technology just because you like it, you may be giving extra responsibilities to your team with no good reason. Only use a collaborative tool that suits to your purposes and needs.

Social Aspects

Sometimes working with a group can make working on a project a lot easier by sharing the workload. Other times—it can seem nearly impossible. You may work with people who are hard workers in one group and people who are lazy in another. People also have strengths and weaknesses. You cannot always pick team members, so you must learn to work with all types of personalities. Because you do not want to work in a hostile environment, be considerate.

Editors must be especially cautious when working with others. If you must edit another’s work, consider their feelings while reviewing. This does not mean that you must put every critique as delicately as possible, but you should never be arrogant as you make corrections. Realize that people make mistakes and so do you. Always have a professional attitude and try to word your critiques as positively as possible. Unless you are under strict time constraints, focus on some of the positive aspects of your teammate’s writing instead of only the negative.

Above all else, remain professional. This is the best way to summarize how to work well with others. It may be difficult at times to control your emotions, but doing so helps create an enjoyable work environment for everyone. Avoid profanity so that you do not unintentionally offend a co-worker or client. Be mindful of others’ feelings. Moreover, treat others how you would like to be treated, an ancient philosophy, and great advice.

Traditional Collaborative Tools

You are probably quite familiar with these technologies, so this section will not go into too many details. These technologies are included to remind you of practical solutions that are not found online. Newer technologies can be excellent tools, but consider the advantages of traditional tools before eliminating them as an option for collaboration.

Meetings

This may seem obvious, but meetings are an excellent collaboration tool. If your company is located in one location, it will probably be more practical to schedule a meeting face-to-face than set up a conference call. Meetings provide the best environment for collaborating and discussing a project because you can gather a group together and everyone can be seen and heard.

Teleconferencing

While it is possible to talk to others online, you still may want to keep your landline. If the internet stops working, you must have the ability to have a conference call. It is a lot easier to train employees who are computer illiterate to telecommunicate with a phone than the computer.

Fax Machines

It is easy to transfer documents online, but what happens when you need to send a signed report? In addition, your client may not be able to open pdf files or there may be some other type of compatibility issue. Some businesses that you may work with may not have access to a computer, but they have a fax machine (Figure 2.2).

Printed Documents and Letters

In the age of email, sending a letter may seem like an outdated practice, but remember that printed documents can be practical. If you send an email to your team members, co-workers may not open it right away. Printed material has immediacy.

Online Collaboration Tools

As technology evolves, its ability to be used as a collaboration tool increases. There are hundreds of programs that can assist you in collaborating with a team. This section helps you explore various types of online collaboration tools. It will talk about the technology and then give an example. Most of all of the technologies used as an example have a free version that you can download, but you may want to consider upgrading to the paid versions to experience all of the program’s features.

Email

You may already be familiar with email, but take the time now to consider it as a collaborative tool. While you may not have thought it to be one, virtual teams use them extensively when collaborating. Your team collaborates whenever they send an email that contains a question or suggestion.

Emails are an easily understood program, which makes it easy to use by people who are inexperienced with the internet. You can send emails to one person or multiple people. It is a technology that is well prepared for group work. You can attach documents to your email to share with your team. Depending on your settings, emails can act as an archive for your correspondence. Nearly all received and sent mail is stored in your email account and you control what is deleted or not.

Emails can cause problems. A quickly written email may not read the way you intended because it is written slightly ambiguously. Emails can accidentally be sent to the unintended recipient.

You should avoid transferring too many documents in an email when collaborating on something. If the document only needs to be sent once, email works great. However, when you transfer a document that is being edited and revised by more than two people, the most updated version of the document can easily get lost in the correspondence. You would want to use a file sharing program for this application, which is mentioned later in this section.

Gmail

An example of a free email service is Gmail, which is created by Google (Figure 2.3). A nice feature that sets Gmail apart from other email providers is the conversation view. When you send an email, get a reply, and then reply to that reply, Gmail keeps all of those correspondences grouped together. This feature helps you organize the emails that you want to save for future reference. When you use Gmail, you are able to use its built-in instant messaging service, which is the next collaborative tool.

Instant Messaging

If you work with people from different locations, you will need to communicate with them often. You may be able reach them by phone, but this can become impractical if you need to communicate throughout the day. A solution is instant messaging software.

With instant messaging, you communicate by typing. Once one person types and submits something, it is instantly transferred to the other person’s computer, and then that other person has an opportunity to respond. This type of communication works great in situations where audible communication is impractical.

With instant messaging, you can talk to multiple people at the same time. Either you can open separate chats with multiple people individually, or you can include multiple in one chat so that everyone can talk to each other. Instant messaging also allows you to archive your chat sessions so that you have a record
of the conversation.

Not all aspects of instant messaging are ideal for all situations. While cellular phones can be used anywhere, you must have an internet connection to use instant messaging. In addition, poor internet connection can cause lagging, which slows down the messages between users. Imagine submitting your reply and having it take thirty seconds for it to post to the other user. This delay can cause much
confusion between users.

You may want to consider using emoticons in your writing. Emoticons are punctuation marks that are arranged to represent emotions. Of course, you would never use an emoticon on a professional document, but it could be appropriate in a medium such as instant messaging. Remember that you may only use emoticons in a casual context. You would never send an emoticon to your company’s CEO unless you know him or her well.

Table 2.1

Emoticon Emotion
:) Happy, Smiling
:( Sad, Upset
;) Winking

Google Talk

An example of a free instant messaging service is Google Talk (Figure 2.4). All that you need to have in order to use Google Talk is a Google account, which is also free. Once you set up the account, you can chat with others who have Google Talk just as you would with any other instant messaging service. It also allows you to transfer files while chatting. With this service, you can change your status so that other chatters can see if you are online or not. You can even set your status to “invisible” so that you can see who else is online, but others cannot see that you are available to chat.

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)

If your team cannot communicate properly with instant messaging, consider using VoIP. This collaborative tool functions like a telephone that operates over the internet. With VoIP, you can talk to your team using audio, or you can talk using a combination of audio and video, or videoconferencing.

Videoconferencing (Figure 2.5) is a great alternative to the traditional meeting when not all members of a team are located at the same place. A videoconference can be set up between two or more locations if there is a microphone, video camera, and screen. The microphone and video camera will record you and the screen will display team members. You can even access VoIP on a laptop. This tool is an effective way to reduce the distance between team members who are not able to meet face-to-face.

If you choose to use this tool, remember that there can be issues with reliability. VoIP is only reliable as your internet connection. If the internet shuts down, whether it is yours or the VoIP’s hosting service, you will not be able to use this tool. It may also be difficult to train computer illiterate employees how to use the software.

Skype

A free VoIP is Skype (Figure 2.6). With Skype, you can call other Skype users and phone numbers; however, there are additional fees to call phone numbers. You can set up videoconferencing between two people for free. You can have a videoconference between more than two people with an upgraded Skype account, which cost money, but may be worth the investment depending on your needs. Skype also has an integrated instant messaging service, file transferring service, and text messaging service.

Document Editors

You are probably familiar with word processing programs like Microsoft Word. Document editors that are online follow the same basic concepts. The difference is that the document in stored online instead of a file that needs to be transferred in order to be read. With online editors, all you need is the link to the document.

It may not be that much easier for you to open up a document online instead of a folder, but it can be efficient when you are collaborating online. You may have some problems transferring files when multiple people edit the same document. You may spend hours editing a document only to find out that the documents was not the latest version. Online editing tools can tell you if someone is in the process of editing the document, which prevents you from accidentally doing double the work. Also, you will not have to worry about working on an outdated version of the file that was mixed up during a file transfer.
Some online editors do not allow more than one person to work on a document at the same time. If you plan to use this collaborative tool, you should create a schedule that dictates when team members can edit their portion of the document.

Google Docs

Google Docs (Figure 2.7) is free editing program actually allows more than one person to edit the document at a time. The other members of your team will be able to see the changes you make as you type. You can create different types of documents, such as forms, drawings, and spreadsheets.

Synchronization Services

You would want to use a synchronization service to share a large amount of files. This collaborative tool creates a synchronization folder that exists on your computer, other team member’s computers, and on the program’s servers. The synchronization folder on your computer is connected to the other members’ folder though the internet. Your team will have access to your document when you upload it to the synchronization folder.

These services are ideal for sharing files, but there are other benefits as well. Your files are backed up when you upload them to a synchronizations service. You will not lose your files if something happens to your computer. Also, your team will know exactly where find the files they need because they are all in the same place.

If you plan to store many files, you may not want to use a synchronization service. This tool can occupy a lot of hard drive space on your team’s computers. Try making your own website and storing the files there if your files take up too much space. If most of your files are text documents, you should not have this problem.

Dropbox

There is a free version and one you pay for with Dropbox (Figure 2.8). The paid version offers more storage space. Dropbox allows you to share files on Windows, Mac, and Linux platforms and allows you to share through your mobile device. Dropbox members also get two gigabytes of back up storage for free.

Sharing Spaces and Wikis

If your team needs to use multiple collaboration tools in order to complete a project, consider using a sharing space or a wiki. These tools usually perform all of the functions mentioned so far in this section. By using a sharing space or wiki, your collaborative tools will be in one place.

The greatest benefit of these tools is that everything is in a centralized location. Your team will not be confused about where they need to go for information. You and your team will automatically know where to find files, check the calendar, and hold a meeting with instant messaging because it will all be in the same place.

You may not want to use a sharing space or wiki if your team only needs a small amount of collaborative tools. While sharing spaces and wikis offer many tools in one location, the tools found within them may not function as well as a tool that is designed for a specific purpose. For example, if you use a sharing space or wiki only to share files, you might want to use a synchronization service to better suit your needs.

Wiggio

This free sharing space offers many of the tools that a virtual team needs. It has calendars, to-do lists, meeting spaces, file sharing, polls, and more. With Wiggio (Figure 2.9), you can enlist in more than one group. Wiggio has a feed feature that updates you with the latest activity of your team. The feed is listed on your Wiggio home page and it can alert you by email or text message.

Podcasts

If you need to broadcast a message, consider using a podcast. A podcast is a recording of either one person talking or of multiple people having a conversation. The podcast is then converted into a popular audio format so that you can easily listen to it over the internet. You can listen to a podcast online, or you can download from the internet and upload it onto a CD or into your mp3 player. You can record your own podcast with recording software and convert into a digital audio format.

Podcasts are a great tool for when working with a large group. Instead of holding a meeting and expecting everyone to remember important information, you could record a podcast and email it to all of your team members. Employees could listen to it at their convenience. There would be less confusion about the content of your presentation because team members could play the file repeatedly.

Again, there could be issues with the internet not working, and not all of your team members may be able to use digital audio formats. Also, it requires some skill to record a podcast. Most recording software required more than just the push of one button. If you plan to use podcasts as a way of communicating with your team, be sure to allow yourself some time to become familiar with the software.

Audacity

Although it is not specifically a podcast recorder, Audacity (Figure 2.10) is a free recording software that is relatively easy to learn and can help you produce a quality podcast. When you open up the program, make sure you have the microphone configured correctly and then press the record button. You can record one track and then record again over the original it so that the recording sounds like both tracks happened at the same time (Figure 2.11). Once you have your recording, you will need to install a plug-in to convert the track to mp3 format. Then you can send your file to your team.

Blogs

If you need to keep your team updated, you might want to consider using a blog. Blogs allow you to share short articles. You can choose whether to allow other team members to post comments on your blog so that they could express their opinions or ask a question.

Most blogs are very intuitive and easy to use. You can choose your level of security so that either anyone on the internet can view your blog, or only a select few who you invite by email. Some blogs alert you by email or text message when someone comments on your blog if you give the blog that permission. This alert system keeps you updated with your blog.

Blogs may not always be the most practical solution. You would never want to put a conversation that should be private on a blog for all to see. Also, if you allow comments, there is a possibility that team members can instigate arguments.

Blogger

This free blogging service is designed for the beginners and experts of the web. Blogger (Figure 2.12) lets you create your own profile so that you can connect with the community. You can design your Blogger site however, you want by either following a template or entering in computer code. The most important feature for collaborating online is the ability to determine who accesses your blog.

Forums

This collaborative tool is excellent if you need to ask and answer many questions within your group. Forums discuss multiple topics at one location. The topics are usually divided into main categories. Each main category has sub-categories. Then each sub-category has threads. You can open your forum to anyone on the internet, or you can set the permissions so that only invited guests can enter the forum.

Forums are more practical for large teams. If an issue arises with a small team, it is easy to inform all members about the issue. However, larger teams that operate from different locations cannot always communicate as effectively. They may need an additional resource to hold the information. The benefit of forums is that conversations can become resources when team members solve a common problem. Team members can always reference that discussion if they encounter a similar problem.

Forums can be difficult maintain. If no one uses the forum to ask questions about their problem, then no one else will be able to use the forum as a reference for future problems. As with blogs, it is possible that team members can instigate arguments with each other, which ultimately hurts the moral and productivity of your team.

ProBoards

This free forum community offers hosting services. The free version offers nearly all of the same features as the paid version, but it has advertisements. You can set permissions to determine who is able to enter your forum and who can make administrative decisions. ProBoards (Figure 2.13) has an extensive security system that helps prevent spammers from using your forum.

Presentation Tools

If you have ever attended a business meeting, you have probably seen or used PowerPoint, which is a presentation tool. These programs typically act as a visual aid for speech, but they can also incorporate audio so that the presentation does all of the presenting. The presentation tools mentioned here are similar to PowerPoint except that they exist online.

These collaborative tools can help you explain difficult concepts in an understandable way. Also, the presentation will always be available for team members to review. Sometimes written words are not enough to explain a concept, so you need visuals. A person can become confused when they repeatedly read a text, then look at the visuals, and then return to the text. You can combine audio, text, and visuals into one presentation and eliminate that confusion.

While presentation tools are a great way to convey difficult information, it can also become time consuming to create a presentation. Do not spend an hour creating a presentation for something that could be said in a two-hundred-word email. As with all software, you may also experience compatibility issues with other team members. Be sure to use a program that your team can access without any problems.

Prezi

This presentation tool takes a different approach because it allows you to zoom in and out of the presentation instead of switching from one slide to the next. This helps the information you present flow more effectively. There is a free version that displays the Prezi logo (Figure 2.14) on your presentation and submits it to a publicly shared database. If you want to keep your information private, you will have to pay a subscription fee.

Summary

When you work with a team, it is important to remember that there are two aspects of collaboration: social and technological. Develop techniques that will help you work with all types of personalities and always remain professional. Do not forget about traditional technologies when collaborating, but also try to explore some of the options found in the online environment.

Remember to choose technologies based on your needs. You may be partial to one technology or brand, but it may not be the best technology for the specific situation you require. Have an open mind while trying out a new technology. You might prefer the new technology after you learn to use its features. You will never know if it could increase your team’s productivity until you explore the different collaboration tools.