It's new name is cloud computing, but it's been around for many, many years before it got its snazzy name.
Sharing and collaborating over this kind of information online in a private space where only those you choose to see it may do so (such as volunteers) cuts down on email for everyone, prevents anyone from losing a file, and means those of your choosing can view the information from any computer with web access.
And the good news is that there are many FREE tools you can use to get started.
In addition, learning how such free, simple applications work means you will be training yourself and those you work with to use more advanced, customized systems down the road. It means that, when a technology professional starts talking to you about an advanced sharing system or other technology tool, you will understand more about what he or she means -- and be able to express YOUR wants and needs.
Sharing files and collaborating online takes a very different way of thinking that comes from a commitment to being open in your work, more than it takes any technological expertise. You will be letting other people see and comment on your work, something that only the marketing manager used to have to deal with at a nonprofit organization! This is a new way of working for most people, and it can feel scary. But the potential benefits far out weight the risks.
For instance, a volunteer manager might
In most cases, tools specifically for online collaboration allow you to make a work space as public or as private as you like, and allow you as much control you want: you can be the only person allowed to change or add content, you can allow only certain other people to do so, you can allow people to submit information that isn't shared until you approve it, etc.
GoogleApps is a suite of free web-based applications (you can pay for an upgrade to more advanced features). The most popular free tool among GoogleApps is Gmail (which gives you an email address and various email-management functions). There's also GoogleGroups (for creating and managing online discussion groups or email distribution lists), GoogleCalendar (which can be entirely private, or can be shared with a small group, or even with everyone), GoogleTalk (which allows for instant messaging) and GoogleDocs (which allows collaboration on documents and spreadsheets). Google is encouraging GoogleApps use by nonprofits. Over on TechSoup.org, a site about computer and Internet technologies for nonprofits, there is a thread asking for GoogleApps success stories.
Yahoo! also has a suite of web-based applications for free. The most popular is also the mail program, YahooMail. My favorite was YahooGroups, which I preferred to GoogleGroups, because of its integrated features, like a shared calendar just for the individual group, and tools that allow members to share information and photos, allow group owners to configure the group a number of different ways, and allow each individual group member to decide exactly how he or she wants to relate to the group (via individual emails, via digest, or via the web). However, in 2013, Yahoo! radically altered the features and design of YahooGroups, and I'm not transitioning away from using it as a collaborative space, because it's just too difficult to navigate. That said, you can still set up a YahooGroup for all those at your organization you want to have access to your online information. This can be volunteers, a particular group of volunteers, remote staff, or people in your department. You can set up the group to be completely private, allowing only those who are members to see the messages and resources, and putting all requests for membership in a queue for you to approve for participation. You may be tempted to create several different groups for different teams or different projects; don't do so, however, until you have successfully launched one, and everyone who should be using it is doing so. With your online group set up, you now not only have a discussion group/mailing list; you also have tools you can use with members:
If you require all volunteers to join a YahooGroup or GoogleGroup, you have an easy way to contact them all. Members can decide to receive messages via individual emails, via a digest email, or web-only.
What I like about either of these suite of tools, other than all the features they offer and that they are free:
One more positive about using GoogleApps or YahooApps - they have smart
phone app counterparts. And as more and more people are using smart phones
as their primary Internet access, rather than lap tops, this is something
you should consider in choosing online collaboration tools.
Web-based spaces can provide a much easier way to collaborate on documents and other files. These document-management and shared-work platforms are accessed through the Internet (or, sometimes, a local area network - offline from the world, online only for people at your organization), and are private, for pre-approved users only, usually everyone working in your office or for your company. Everyone can update the file in one location, which greatly simplifies version control, compared to having multiple versions of the file. All revisions are tracked, but the changes might not be shown within the document itself - instead, the changes may be shown in a separate revision history in some of the tools. The functionality also lets editors "check out" and "check in" files to prevent multiple people from making different offline changes at the same time.
Options for web-based spaces in addition to what I've mentioned include (links go to official web sites):
How does sharing documents online really work?
Here's an example of how a virtual team would work on documents and files that need to be edited/reviewed by several people:
Here's a TERRIFIC primer that can get you thinking about sharing information online, and working together on files: Collaborative Writing, from Web2practice: Emergent technologies and innovative practice. Each guide consists of a short animated video explaining the key concepts, supported by a more in-depth printable overview of the topic, covering the potential uses, risks and how to get started. The guides and the resources used to create them can be downloaded, modified and shared under a creative commons licence.
A caution on the sharing of designs, from consultant Jack Vickery of Vancouver:
"Designing web pages when there is a significant difference in resolutions or the restriction of colours used can be extremely frustrating. I once spent several days of back and forth emails with a client who was complaining that the photos I had placed on her web site looked horrible. It was not until I saw the web site on her computer that the penny dropped, she had the resolution set to 600 x 480 and 16 colours (required by a scrabble game she liked to play). Once I showed her how to reset to something more common the problem (literally) vanished.Also, realize that most people cannot have a new, advanced system thrust upon them; the more advanced a new system, the more guidance they are going to need in using that system. So consider starting with a very simple, free platform, and getting your team used to working together online, before you invest in a highly-advanced file-sharing / collaborative workspace platform.
Don't get bogged down with trying to pick the "right" tool; sharing files and work online takes a very different way of thinking, and success in using these tools takes everyone shifting their thinking. The key to working together collaboratively online isn't your computer technology or your budget; it's how the other humans you are trying to work with save, share and respond to information and requests for feedback. It's mostly about trust-building, good organization and good management.
Also, building it does not guarantee they will come. You must make a commitment to use these tools regularly if you want other people to use them as well. For instance, you must keep the calendar regularly up-to-date if you want volunteers to find it of value. You have to log in to your instant messaging account if you want volunteers to see you online and know they can send you an instant message.Ultimately, no matter what method you use to share information and solicit feedback, trust and participation will make or break the system: everyone involved in the process should feel that you can be trusted you to hear and value their feedback, they must quickly and easily "see" the value of their participation, and they must see the results of the time and energy they spend in reviewing information and providing feedback. No software in the world can build trust or guarentee participation; only the way you respond and relate to others, and your own commitment, can do this.
Do you have other tips for working on documents remotely, without having to purchase special software? Send me your suggestions!
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