Share and share alike

Large enterprises might have the IT expertise and budget to make buying in expensive collaboration software a real option, but with smaller firms this simply isn’t the case. Windows Middle East explains how your team can work together effectively, wherever you all are, for little or no cash outlay.

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By  Matthew Wade Published  January 4, 2007

|~||~||~|Projects are not always completed by one employee working in isolation. There are times in the life of a worker when collaborating on a particular document or contributing towards a wider, more complex team project can be a truly valuable approach. The former task, that of sharing an individual document, can have several benefits. On one hand, when several users are able to amend and update a Word document or spreadsheet, different versions don’t need to be bandied around, eliminating what we’ll call ‘version confusion’ (a productivity killer if ever there was one). Similarly, if several users can simultaneously input data into one document then there is no waiting around for one user to finish their amendments, save the document and then send it to - or share it with - the wider group. As a result all these users can, following a project meeting say, get cracking whilst the iron is hot. Full projects involving more than one document, maybe several different files, plus to-do lists and schedules (a research report for a client or the creation and approval of a marketing brochure say), can be a bigger challenge to manage, particularly - as is often the case in today’s working world - when members of staff are away traveling or based in disparate locations. However there are several solutions available for little or no cost that allow such groups to effectively contribute ideas, information, links and indeed files, to help projects keep moving along from wherever and whenever users choose to pitch in. We’ll also explore some of these here. Sharing single documents Many small business users tend towards using Microsoft Excel as a budgeting, inventory or contact management tool, rather than learning their way around Access or buying in an expensive and potentially tricky-to-learn corporate database. This is a good thing when it comes to collaborative working, because since the launch of Office 2003 - and even more so now with the arrival of the further improved Office 2007 - Excel’s workbook sharing feature has been very useable. To share an Excel spreadsheet with colleagues, use the ‘Share Workbook’ option. Simply open the workbook and choose Tools/Share Workbook in the File menu. Next, select the box labeled ‘Allow changes by more than one user at the same time’ and click OK. Now, ask team members to open the same workbook to ensure that sharing is activated. If you wish to control any changes being made, simply click on the Advanced tab in the Share Workbook window and select ‘Ask me which changes win’ under the ‘Conflicting changes between users’ section. The sharing of Word documents in this way is more limited. Even with the new Office 2007 version of Word, this Excel style of document sharing is not supported. What is offered however is the chance to allow other users to make your recommended changes, add comments to a document, and to fill in its forms. You’ll find all these options by heading for the Review ribbon and then choosing ‘Protect Document’ (then simply check ‘2. Editing restrictions’ and choose the type of amendments you’ll allow to be made). This gap in Word’s functionality is smoothed over however by a third-party service that doesn’t require employees to even be connected to the same company network. Log online and click to www.workshare.com/go/document-sharing-software.aspx. If several members of your team are involved in creating and revising a Word document, Workshare Professional lets them share the document in question, via e-mail, but with the benefit of co-ordinating the multiple versions so that you only have one master document ‘on the go’ at any one time. If this type of funcationality sounds like it could be of use, a free trial version of the app is available. Otherwise. a one-year license will cost from US$175 upwards (depending on the level of support you choose). For more comprehensive collaboration within Office 2003, more IT requirements - and with them in-house support capabilities - come into play, in that you need to be running one of Microsoft’s two intranet portal offerings: Windows SharePoint Services (which comes free with Windows Server 2003) or the firm’s full SharePoint Portal Server 2003 (costing roughly three or four thousand US dollars). Both of these SharePoint products let your staff create ‘workspaces’ around one or several documents, which can be accessed by colleagues via their web browsers. Within each of these workspaces, members can set rights for specific files (who can read and edit them etc.), schedule tasks via group calendars, create to-do lists, and much more. Get a full overview over at www.microsoft.com/sharepoint. Similarly, Office 2007 offers such collaborative workspaces, with the same server package requirements. For instance, if you have access to Excel Services - a part of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 - that is capable of running Excel Calculation Services, you can save a workbook to that server so that other users can access all or parts of it, again via a browser. ------------------------------------------------ Dump and download If you need to share a file such as a rich video clip or database but your e-mail system cannot cope with its size, there are a multitude of private online storage sites you can use. Here’s our pick of the current crop: Dropload.com No registration required, files held for seven days, 100Mbyte file limit. Sendthisfile.com Users must register, no file size limit, files held for three days. Megaupload.com No registration required, 500Mbyte file limit. Gigasize.com Quick upload option, no registration required, 300Mbyte file limit (registered users - 1.5Gbyte file limits). Mailbigfile.com No registration required, 512Mbyte file limit. ------------------------------------------------ Get your groove on Microsoft also has a collaboration tool available that does away with the need for users to be connected to the company network, meaning collaboration can be achieved wherever your staff might be working. ‘Office Groove 2007’ again creates workspaces with which users can keep tools, files, and information in one place. Creating a Groove workspace on your computer is done in just two quick clicks, while colleagues, partners, and customers can be added into the project without worrying about networks or servers. A free Groove trial is available, which you can get busy with by clicking here. If you and your team are working on - or need to kick off - a full project, such as a research project or a creative ideas brief, then sharing one Word or Excel document mightn’t cut the mustard. Not to worry however, as there are various innovative online ways of collecting and pulling together raw data. At the most basic level, if each member of your team has been tasked with researching part of a topic and coming up with relevant descriptions, quotes and weblinks, say, then it might just be that the web’s most popular user-written encyclopedia, Wikipedia, or some other type of ‘wiki’, can help. Research firm Gartner estimates that at least half of enterprises will use Wikis in two years’ time for such collaborations, so why not try it? The great thing about this approach, and Wikipedia in particular, is that it’s free for everyone and anyone to use and amend. True, the member of your team who is creating your Wiki page will need to register with the site, but thereafter once your colleagues have that page’s URL they can all surf to it, amend any information you put on there and add to this their own findings. This data dumping might not be what Wikipedia’s founders had in mind when they launched, but whilst it’s there, why not use it? A service that was created with precisely this more business-focussed kind of usage in mind is JotSpot (www.jotspot.com). Now up to version 2.0, this offers more features than Wikipedia such as the ability to collaborate on spreadsheets and photos. The firm’s chief executive officer, Joe Kraus, describes the service’s offer as “removing the limitations of traditional wikis and marrying the wiki metaphor with some of the capabilities of Microsoft Office”. The service is free for up to five users and reasonably priced thereafter. Frustatingly at present, since being recently bought out by Google JotSpot has ceased accepting new account registrations, but you can sign up at the site to be notified when JotSpot has migrated its systems to Google’s and starting signing up customers again. Should you have more of a flexible collaboration budget and require more features, one of the best online services around right now is Basecamp (www.basecamphq.com). Designed for use by in-company and client-facing collaborators, the service hosts all files, tools and schedules on its own web servers, meaning you and your team don't need to download or install anything; all you need is a preferably broadband internet connection and a browser. Everything your full project might demand has been taken into account. To-do lists can be uploaded and edited on the fly, files shared between colleagues, plus the service’s time-tracking function can help you keep on top of client-billing by helping you and your staff record how long you’ve spent on different tasks. Easily configurable permissions then let you decide who can see and work on which pieces of work. In short, worth a look. ------------ In full view If you want to show a remote colleague what’s on your screen, be this a document or how to complete a task, ‘screensharing’ will allow them to see what you're seeing. The following three programs can help: RealVNC Very popular with technically-adept users. www.realvnc.com glanceNetworks Simple and effective, this application lets you invite guests to view your screen without them having to download and install any client software of their own. www.glance.net GoToMeeting A capable online collaboration and meeting tool. www.gotomeeting.com ------------ ||**||

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