So you want a low cost, collaborative workspace with big capabilities, and not much to learn? Here’s a recipe:
- Web-based: you want to access it from anywhere and not have it be dependent on your own hardware. Besides, you’re not lugging around a 20-pound laptop are you? You’ve been good, and upgraded to a netbook that really does travel. Anyway, the whole basis of collaboration is not documents lost on some ‘shared drive’ but documents and workspace in the cloud – hanging out there where you can assign them to any and all.
- No learning curve: Even if you’re tech-savvy, you want to spend your time collaborating, not teaching people to use your funky interface. It has to be very simple in organization, with a transparent, intuitive interface.
- Free-form with fast, flexible queries: Do you want to spend your time fitting your information into someone else’s schema, or do you want it to take your data quickly, make it categorizable, searchable, and just work?
- Effectively scalable: I’m thinking at least 20 users. You may not need that much. Now. But once you start sharing documents and, more importantly, sharing workspace, you find all kinds of uses over time. It also needs to support separate folder structures or other separate areas (for SMEs/Teams/Projects/Topics).
- Secure: You must be able to add an ‘s’ to the http:// (https://) and have it run in SSL secure mode. You are accessing your G-mail that way, right? https://gmail.com
- Low cost: free wouldn’t hurt, but at least it needs to be free for low-volume users.
Some Broad Options:
- Hosted shared space (e.g. google sites)
- Hosted shared documents (e.g. google docs)
- Hosted wiki-based environment (like BrainKeeper)
- Hosted forum (like Wet Paint)
- Hosted blog atmosphere or CMS (like Joomla or Drupal)
We’ve ruled out Access (office database)-based approaches and installable software, for exactly the reasons we led with – it’s just not modern cooking.
Enough has been written about blogs and forums, though perhaps not as collaborative spaces – there’s a lot to be explored there, in terms of their potential functionality. The wiki is the perennial collaborative space that will always be around, I think – and lots of work has been done on the wiki phenomenon. Google Docs, well, it’s pretty straightforward, since back when Writely was one of the best contenders for online word processing. If you’re still cooking documents on a hard drive – why? So they can get fragged, glitched, or require backups?
That leaves shared space. And again, here, there’s PHPProjekt and others that either enforce a more rigid structure or require customization to get around that. We want something that works out of the box.
So far, I’ve found two in the sterling, awesome, workable category: Google Sites and Evernote. Both of these meet all our criteria, and have fast, fast searching and content editing. Very fast searching.
Evernote is almost entirely free-form, with a notebook and tag structure if you like. In this ballpark, Google Notebook, has been, frankly, outstanding, except now Google has stopped development on it, essentially yielding the ground to Evernote. I really, really just won’t let go of my Google Notebook, tho. They may not be offering new ones for much longer, but they’re keeping the existing ones around and, as long as they do, I’m in. It has made my life so much easier. I wouldn’t be right without it. That said, Evernote is a damned good product, and has some neat features not found in Google Notebook. I will be using it as well.
Google Sites offers more structure, but still allows a lot of freedom, and is, frankly, more robust as a collaborative space. It’s folder-based, though I wouldn’t be surprised if google made it tag-driven instead. Really, it depends on what you need. I intend to collaborate with both.
With some creativity and either Google Sites or Evernote, you can create a really impressive professional environment to show clients, as well.