Online Collaboration

This is a part of a mail to my friend. The organisation is 1. made up of technical people and 2. they were considering SharePoint and the mail is a way for me to try and explain my first reaction of Noooooooo… Please feel free to correct/comment/criticise/add things…

Is it mostly a project management/motivational tool? Do you mostly need to manage teams of people working on the same thing, needing access to the same secure files, to online realtime meeting (chat) rooms, whiteboards, discussion boards? Of is it a tool to strengthen and maximise connections formed at collaborative events and conferences? There is a local company called who does these things, and they are developing really quickly. I’ve used them for collaborative conference planning, I like their platform, and they are quick to implement changes if you suggest them.

There are some others that do other things well. is part of a package for small businesses to take care of their project management, Customer Relationship Management, etc – but doesn’t scale as well. takes the social integration a lot further, it works better if your users are mostly on twitter already. Which might well be the case, I don’t know.

A quick case study for how online community building/collaboration can work these days.

Akvo ( is a start-up showing how IT changes lives, literally. It’s both a database of water/sanitation related projects around the world, with real-time updates coming via SMS straight from the field (an idea which Akvo is built around), widgets showing off these projects on partners’ websites, and a Wiki (Akvopedia), a water and sanitation related resource of knowledge. The idea being that a lot of knowledge is being collected by NGOs around the world but now we have the technology to free it from the dusty shelves and make it available to the people who need it.

Akvo is an organisation whose employees live and work all over the world. Headquarters based in the Netherlands, founders live and work in the Netherlands, Stockholm and London, developers in California and Scotland, a community of partners all over the world. Much of their communications (whatever is not priviledged) are happening in real time and completely discoverable on Twitter. They all blog and create content of their work, they use video, audio, pictures to document what they do, they have their CRM system securely in the cloud so they can access contact data from wherever they are, they use ichat and skype to talk to each other every day. As a result, they are able to have a thriving community and have built links with just about everyone else working in that field, plus managed to become the technical partner for Live Earth, which is quite a feat for such a young organisation.

Obviously some of this is going to be more or less applicable depending on the particular organisation and its activities. However, a fact is that many of the tools are free. Wikis (you already have one), twitter, skype, google wave, linkedin and its groups. Platforms to pull these things, and people, together.

To be creatively collaborative – start where you are. People meet at events. In my network, I have a brilliant personal community on twitter of people who work in similar areas, because I volunteered to run events, and I keep in constant touch with them on twitter. It’s worth a lot more than the money I could have been paid to run those events (it’s almost every day that I throw a question out and get an instant reply from my network, saving me lots of research time). In your network, there are events, people meet, I personally would start with a way of helping people to keep in touch after meeting at those events. Create a platform and then run workshops at the events about getting involved. It’s not a case of if you build it they’ll come – the important thing is the person to pull the tech together and gets people involved

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1 Response

  1. Hi Anke, fun that you would use us at Akvo as an example. Maybe I can provide some more input.

    We use a number of tools to help us collaborate, just as you say. We are a small organisation, but very distributed. We have twelve people working from nine physical locations. Only four of use work in the same office, in Hague. Most of us work from home.

    We use a number of tools to get our work done. Here is a partial list:

    – Google Calendar
    – Google Wave, fast moving documents like requirements analysis
    – Google Docs, documentation, later transferred to the Mediawiki based Wiki
    – Tender, for help documentation, support discussions
    – iChat / Skype for video chat and chat (we use this a lot)
    – Email, (of course) on our own mail server (Zimbra)
    – Dropbox, for shared document storage
    – WordPress / Drupal for blog and webpages
    – Twitter, for status updates and giving the team and our wider collaboration teams a sense of what is going on, as well as bouncing ideas off each other (quite active on this)
    – Highrise, a customer interaction database
    – PHPlist, for mailings, with our own integration to Highrise

    We are an online services organisation, so we develop software, which means we have a lot more collaborative tools around the software development, but describing that is for another time.

    We experimented with a number of tools before we ended up with the above selection. Is it perfect? By no means. The advantage is that it is very flexible. The disadvantage is that there are quite a few systems, with poor or no integration sometimes.

    The total monthly cost is US$35. Most of the tools are free. There is some admin involved, but nothing really major.

    Could we replicate this functionality with a single tool? Unlikely, so for us it felt best to go with a “best of breed” solution for now.

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