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With collaborative software, businesses spread over multiple locations can now work seamlessly with just a click
Managing businesses in the pre-globalization days was pretty simple. For example, in a large company like IBM, design and production teams were housed in the same or adjoining locations (Poughkeepsie being one of them), with only the sales and marketing people separated geographically. If people wanted to discuss something face-to-face they would just schedule a meeting or walk over to the respective cubicle or cabin.
However, things got more complicated as companies had to expand across countries, continents and time zones. For a while, e-mail was used as the primary means of communication when documents needed to be exchanged among team members who might have never seen each other. But anyone using e-mail knows that in spite of it being pretty instantaneous and reliable, it’s only good when the number of people involved is kept to the bare minimum. You really can’t have 20 people mailing back and forth discussing minor changes and making modifications to a document - after a couple of hours the entire thread would look as convoluted as an online debate about “PCs vs. Macs”.
This realisation led to a more proactive and imaginative use of the Internet when it comes to collaborating on work. Online office suites like Google Docs and Spreadsheets and Zoho Office Suite were introduced, which were intended to replace offline office suites like Microsoft Office. However, these tools didn’t really cut down on multiple applications like e-mails and chats.
Therefore, another type of software known as collaborative tools, which allow remote users to synchronise and regularise their workflow were launched. Two examples of this kind are Microsoft Groove and Collanos Workspace. These collaborative tools act as a combination of online whiteboard, message forums and chat rooms, so that physical distances are no longer a hindrance to effective communication. Users also have access to management tools, which help in assigning tasks, deadlines and managing multiple assignments.
In this article, we are previewing Collanos Workspace—a free software that works across multiple platforms and though a bit bare-boned compared to the paid Microsoft Groove, it does its job pretty well. The latest version can be downloaded from www.collanos.com. Also check the December 2007 Personal Tech DVD for a slightly older version (1.1.16) of the same software.
Inside Collanos Workspace
After you have installed the software, you would need to adjust your settings, if you are working behind a proxy. You would also need to create a user account and create a profile, which can be viewed publicly. Once that is done, you are all set!
Collanos Workspace is based on Eclipse, so if you have used that IDE, you will find yourself on familiar territory. The default interface is made up of different modules like Members, Workspace and Discussions, though the View option in the menu can be used to show more modules. Here is the full deal on the ins and outs of Collanos.
Workspaces are where a user typically spends maximum amount of his / her time. This space lists all the files, links, discussions, etc—basically all the activity since the start of the current session. It also includes all the members that you have invited to share those resources as well as the discussions, which go on in the discussion pane. You can open unlimited number of workspaces with their own separate collaborators, resources and discussion threads. The current workspace in which you are working is called the “Active Workspace”. You can have multiple number of workspaces open at the same time and can switch between them instantaneously.
The default view of Collanos Workspace
You can create Workspaces by clicking on the “Create Space” icon in the toolbar. Each Workspace has a name and a description. The new workspace can be created within a previously created workspace, or as an entirely independent entity by selecting the appropriate radio button in global space.
The Members module shows the number of people who are online during a particular session. If you are starting the session this space will initially display only your name. To invite other users, click on the Invite icon from the menu bar and type the name or e-mail address in the search box. These users, however, need to be online when you send them invites. Online members are represented by a green icon against their names. They can also change their profile status to busy by clicking on the icon in the taskbar and selecting either “Busy”, “Online” or “Offline”.
Different user permissions in Collanos
You can invite virtually unlimited number of collaborators for each of the workspaces that you have opened. Members typically have three types of permissions—Guest, Participant and Manager. The Manager initiates the session and can invite others to participate or observe. These permissions, along with other options, like change of status and uninviting or leaving the workspace, can be accessed by right-clicking on the member names in the Member panel.
Collanos Workspace can work with differing content, which are called objects and are contained within a single folder. You can create a folder by clicking on the New Folder icon in the toolbar. Users can share Word documents, PDF files, spreadsheets, slides, links, notes and even music and video. All these are viewable in a single place, so that you know what resources are being viewed by every member in your workspace.
How Things Work
Such organisation is also essential when you have to keep track of changes people make to “live” documents. Consider this scenario—you are working with your team members on a report, and they are all scattered across various locations. You are required to give inputs on a report, which is going to be presented in an important meeting. In a conventional situation, people would give their brief via e-mails, which would then be probably collated by one member of the group into a single document. This document would go back and forth between the participants, until all issues are sorted out. In practice, however, anyone who has attempted this sort of exercise knows that it is a time consuming affair which ends up with someone or the other not really having their say in the final report, along with some unpleasant eye strain and migraine or two.
Creating a new task takes seconds
Compare this with the way Collanos Workspace handles this task. A draft report is shared by the manager of the session. All other participants simultaneously read it and append their own modifications or updates. Each time a change is made a bright orange marker appears over the document, alerting you of the changes. The document always represents the latest changes made, while overwriting earlier changes. In case someone deletes your version with a new version your version will be stored in the Conflict Bin, which can be accessible from Tools > Conflict Bin.
Launching chats in this software is also really simple. Just click on the Discussion icon in the toolbar and give a name to the Discussion. Invite other members to join the discussion by clicking on the Start Chat icon on the top right of the Members pane.
Links and notes can also be added as objects in the workspace. Links are added by using the Add URL icon while notes are added using the Post Note icon. Notes are short messages that can be about anything and are visible to anybody in the Workspace. Each object in the Workspace has its own creator / modifier, the date and time on which it was modified.
One management tool which is of great value in the context of managing teams and projects is the Tasks object. Users can allocate deadlines and set priorities for themselves and others for specific assignments. Click on the Add Task icon and complete the data fields. One limitation here is that you can only allocate tasks to people who are online and present in the Workspace. Other than that we found the Task object pretty useful.
Collanos Workspace is still evolving and is best suited for students, small teams and organisations who can’t afford the resources and the training needed to deploy enterprise level offerings like MS Groove. Similar to Skype or Kazaa, it uses the P2P model, instead of client-server model for networking. This means that even without an Internet connection, members can keep working and collaborating on the local network. Changes are saved on the local machine and when the Internet connection is back up, all the changes are synchronised in the final version, which is viewable by all members. Security used is 256-bit AES encryption, which is the same as used by banking software. The help documentation is pretty exhaustive—you would, however, need to be online to access it.
Use this software for a quick, cheap and no frills way of collaborating with your team!