Group Collaboration

A huge amount of the stuff I do here involves working, online, with other people. I’m surprised at how technology really isn’t where I expect it. Here are some things I do often, and how technology helps me–or fails me.

  • Communicating with persistent groups. I’ve got a board of people who are taking over the club I run here. It’s one group of people, and it’s a “persistent group” — it’s always the same people. I created a mailing list on my server allowing group discussions: we e-mail one address and it goes to everyone. It works great, but we all go to the same school, and thus use the same e-mail service. Why can’t I create a mailing list for all of us? I really shouldn’t be reliant on us e-mailing a “special” address on a server in Texas so that nine of us in Massachusetts each get a copy. A good mailserver for big groups, e.g. schools or companies, ought to let its users create these groups on the fly.
  • Collaborative document editing. This one has two solutions I use:
    • MS Word + Track Changes: Two problems with this one… The first is that most people don’t know how to use it, and trying to communicate how to do it just adds one more thing to go wrong. The second is that “Track changes” doesn’t deal with concurrent edits: if I take a document and work on it, and you take it at the same time and work on it, there’s nothing to even try to merge our changes.
    • MediaWiki: I use the same software that powers Wikipedia to keep notes and lists for myself, as well as to enable better groupwork. We can each track who’s changing what, and it kind of supports concurrent editing, although if we edit the same section, one of us will still get an edit conflict.

    The thing is, the concept of, “You work on Part A, I’ll do Part B, and then we’ll integrate them and make it flow” is very common. It’s kind of disappointing that it takes quirky web apps to do this effectively. I’m not sure this one is a failure of solutions: I can think of numerous things that do it. The problem is just that no one uses them, no one knows how to use them, and none of them have very good name recognition.

  • Calendaring. Exchange supports this in theory, but no one uses it, and I’m still quite disappointed that no one has made a competitor. Google Calendar integrates with GMail nicely, but that doesn’t help for people who don’t use GMail… I want to be able to say, “I want to meet with these 5 people” and have the computer find times that work for each of us within certain constraints. I’ve invented what I call “shotgun scheduling,” which seems to work fairly well. I identify about five times that work well for me and sound like they would be good for other people, and then list them and ask each person to tell me which of them they can do. It eliminates the, “Well I have soccer practice from 2 to 3 on Wednesdays…” headaches. But this is something that technology could solve very easily, and one of the things I want most.
  • Group voting. Again, this is something that Exchange supports but that isn’t used too much. I think we should change the time on one of our events, but I don’t want to do it without running it by the rest of the group. But it’s a pain to send out an e-mail to all of them and then wade through all the responses. (With nine people it’s not a big deal. Imagine if there were 200.) Some things aren’t meant to be discussed, so much as given a quick thumbs-up or thumbs-down. A good e-mail service should support this, and make the results a web-based thing hosted on the server, not an e-mail based thing.
  • Group document repository. SharePoint (?) does this, but it hasn’t been rolled out to students. For an arbitrary “group” of people, I want to be able to upload, edit, and collaborate on documents.
  • Task/project management. Not a to-do list, but a system that supports tiers (i.e., subtasks), deadlines, priorities, statuses, “next steps,” and assignment of tasks. The ability to link a given entry on it to an e-mail thread or whatnot would rock, as would integration with the calendar solution. Out of 50 million task management solutions, I have a big list on my whiteboard. Nothing I’ve found works quite as well. Everything is either too complicated (I don’t want a Gantt chart of my homework) or too simplistic (I don’t want a single-level checklist for managing my more involved projects).
  • Contact sharing. This one has the technology there 100%, but the usage has fallen short. I’d love to be able to automatically retrieve contact information from various contacts and send it to my phone. vCard and such does this, and Outlook will sync right to my Treo. But not many people use this.

I think there are two conclusions to draw from all of this. One is that, in some places, technology is still lacking for some reason. Nothing I do is anything that millions of groups and teams across the planet don’t do, so it’s shocking in a way that technology is still absent in some places.

But at the same time, in some cases, technology is ahead of people. I think organizations essentially need to require that people use the tools. When a manager tries to schedule a meeting and finds that people don’t keep a calendar on the computer, he needs to address the issue with them. When I try to pull down contact information for my coworker and can’t find it, that should be an issue I bring up with him with a, “I can’t believe you’re neglecting your duties” tone. Some of these features have great importance, but we get stuck in a sort of catch 22: no one uses them because, well, no one uses them. It’s the classic network effect: as long as people don’t maintain a group calendar, no one has reason to use a group calendar.

3 thoughts on “Group Collaboration

  1. Nice list of business ideas there, and good points on what’s wrong with current solutions.
    A question: what quirky web apps are you referring to in the section on collaborative document editing?

  2. What I had in the back of my head as I wrote it was primarily Groove, Microsoft’s extension of Office. There’s a few more out there, the names of which I can’t for the life of me remember.

  3. I am working for a Swedish startup that is just launching a new solution for collaborative writing, TextFlow. TextFlow is a parallel word processor that deals with the problem of letting users work concurrently with the same document. The product is still in an early stage (to be launched in full this fall), but the Technology Preview and 3-minute video now on line might interest the you.

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