It may sound obvious, but group collaboration is hard work. On every project I have been involved with, the method by which the team collaborated was different. I am not talking about team dynamics or organizational behaviour, although those are very important subjects. I really mean such seemingly simple things such as sharing documents, reviewing work, passing along comments, and actually getting work done. Although this is a common thread amongst almost all projects everywhere, there is not a ton of time devoted to this by project managers in general. Group collaboration is one of those murky terms that seems to pop-up everywhere, yet have very little definition.
Lets take a look at an actually example. Over the last four client engagements I have worked on during the last year, there have been 4 different methods for sharing documents, and some have worked better than others. The cumulative time spent on this one simple task is actually enormous, and if added up across EVERY team member would really start to add up.
Client A: There was no document management system in place. There was simply a MS shared folder on a network drive. Anyone could access it, add, delete, or change files. Obviously, this was an awful arrangement, with no security, and often times documents went missing.
Client B: There was a homegrown document management system which required everyone to download and install a client to their PC. It allowed you to customize permissions by the document or folder level, which helped matters greatly. It also versioned documents so if you made a mistake, you could go back to a previous version. On the whole this helped the team collaborate to some degree, and emailed attachments were generally a thing of the past, with people passing links or locations back and forth. On the downside, it was behind the firewall, could only be accessed by full time employees, and many outside contractors without a system ID were locked out of the system and all its benefits.
Client C: They used Microsoft Sharepoint server and web clients for everyone. While Sharepoint is a decent collaboration platform, it took a while for the client’s IT folks to get the system up and running. It was also very expensive, from what I heard. The web client for share point, once setup, was pretty easy for the team to use, and the document management features were good, allowing versioning and permissions, in addition to regular backups.
Client D: They had no solution in place prior to the project starting. We decided to launch a web-based solution called CentralDesktop, because it offered the main features the client was looking for, and it was easier and WAY cheaper for them than a Sharepoint install. It had more features than we needed, but it worked PERFECT for the document management tasks we needed it to do.
Bottom line is, there are lots of collaboration tools available out there today. But they are completely useless if the project leadership doesn’t take the time to mandate their usage. Email and shared folders no longer are adequate document storage (let alone storing important documents on individual laptops or desktops only, yikes!). As project leaders, it is often up to us to specify or mandate a solution. Take the time to understand your options, and make the best of the solution already installed at the client location, or if no solution exists, convince the client that the ROI of this investment is worth it for the project!