I seem to spend my life working in, trying to adapt, evaluating or generally ranting at collaboration and project management services. Derek Punsalan has kindly done a nice comparison of the three web-based leaders – Basecamp, activeCollab and GoPlan.
While you’re looking at his site and admiring the clean lines and lovely design, I must tip a nod to Khoi Vinh’s site, Subtraction.com, which I thoroughly covet and will – when I have a mythical moment – copy to the best of my meagre abilities 🙂
Anyhoo, back to the problem: why do I care…
Personal productivity management is all well and good – provided you have no clients to manage and inform, multiple clients or projects and/or work in an heterogeneous environment (eg Macs, PCs, Unix etc).
If your whole company’s on a WAN with Exchange, an enforcement of Outlook as PIM and groupware and you’re happy to send innumerable binary documents around the network then you’ll not be interested in my problems.
At my last company I had a merger and restructure situation of two very large retailers with different legacy systems, different locations and different working conventions. There were also specialists – ranging from procurement professionals through merchandisers to technologist who all had competing, dense documentation standards and formats. My challenge was to increase visibility of activity, open out milestones to team scrutiny and understanding and to track activity on a deliverables or milestones basis. I also wanted a central repository for documentation, with an emphasis not upon “dumping it in a shared drive” but upon “publishing it for the information of others” – a critical distinction. Finally, I needed a space for collaboration and co-creation – eg a wiki or Writeboard that had in-document version/edit control.
Imagine having 6 people work separately on a Word document using ‘track changes’? The resulting mess would make a hardened commercial executive weep!
[UPDATE] I forgot to mention earlier one of the key benefits of Wikis and Writeboards when collaborating and that’s very granular in-document version control, roll-back and diff-ing. Basecamp’s colour-coded diff displays are neat, and I particularly like the fact that comments made on a document are tagged with the “… while looking at version x of the document”. Nice touch.
A recent item of extreme pain was in using an Excel sheet to hold a 50 page requirements capture. After reviewing one version, I then get another that’s 54 pages long – but I have no easy way of seeing what’s changed… The sickening feeling of deja vu is one thing, but the decrease in the level of thought and attention to an important document simply increases project risk. Highly annoying.
I was fortunate at the time that the wonderful folk at Isotoma created a lovely project- and meeting-based collaboration tool based on Plone. This was ideal in the specific context of a single (if ornery) company. Now, however, I need to manage a number of companies and clients – all of whom have different requirements. Pulling all of these together into a single environment (that makes MY life easier!) has proven to be quite a challenge!
I currently use activeCollab and find that it’s OK. It has its quirks with inconsistent navigation, sometimes being out of step with Basecamp releases and new functionality and will soon of course no longer be free.
However, free is over-rated when it comes to essential tools, so that alone isn’t the issue.
Overall I like it because I can offer it to clients free of charge and I like the way it ‘wraps’ all activity around the milestones. Furthermore, the fact that it’s all on my server means that the documents uploaded are safe, I don’t suffer from the ‘afternoon lag’ that besets Basecamp when the West Coast wakes up and I can add innumerable clients without a penalty.
Quick nod to Media72 by the way who provide ridiculously good hosting for under £100 a year and remarkably good support too. They got me up and running with relative ease. I needed a separate host because everything else on Pencil.net would break if we moved to Php5…
Basecamp has taken a major step forward with the recent addition of Highrise CRM but the downside is that to have both I’d be looking at a commitment of $300 per month for the volumes I need. It’s not of itself the end of the world, but that’d make it the most expensive software I own. While I like the availability of Writeboards their integration with the rest of the application sucks – if you want to do more than scroll through a list of them you need to paste a link into the text – more than most of my clients are willing to do!
Basecamp also annoys me (through no fault of its own) because I’m now “on” 7 different Basecamp installs for different projects and the different working processes and collaboration standards are driving me mad!!
Flexibility is a wonderful thing, but there must also be a place for best practice in terms of labelling, nomenclature, documentation standards and status monitoring… I suggested this to some friends over beers last week and got that silent stare of sympathy and fear that’s reserved for when you’ve a rabid nutter standing a little too close to you…
My own search for the “Perfect System for Me” continues, but – unless and until one’s in a position to set the standard for all of the people in one’s project universe – it’s likely to be a frustrating time of vying, pretty applications, each with strengths but no single solution.
Roll on the invention of free, dedicated troupes of coding pixies to have at one’s beck and call…
UPDATE2: some kind people have asked why I don’t use Project or other more formal tools. The main reason for this is that the programmes I run span so many disciplines and domains that the management method is by deliverable and milestone. Individual contributors can use whatever tools are appropriate to them, but it’s a certainty that the same tool is not appropriate to all. When managing knowledge-workers (what a term!) then you need to allow personal flexibility without increasing the project communication overhead.