Simple, free collaboration using internet tools

Since joining the steering group for LocalGov Digital, I’ve been getting back into the swing of things when it comes to working remotely with people spread across the country.

In 2018 it feels like an obvious point to make, but the internet really does make this stuff easy. However, knowing how things are inside many organisations, there is still a whole lot that can be achieved by simply making open internet tools available to people to use to do their jobs.

Collaboration in LocalGov Digital is based on three main tools, all of which are free and can be set up by anyone with an email address and five minutes to spare.

Slack

Slack is the key communications channel, and is a real time text chat application which gives a group of people the ability to talk to one another in themed channels. It’s very easy to use and can be accessed on the web, or through mobile and desktop applications.

The downside with Slack is that it is ephemeral, and stuff can get lost or forgotten about. This is particularly true of the free version, which only archives a certain number of messages. It’s definitely worth storing useful stuff people have shared in a more permanent space when you spot it.

Google Drive

Google Drive is the space where more long-lived collaboration takes place. It delivers word processing, presentations and spreadsheets along with a filing system – all based in the browser.

The ability to have many people working on the same documents, whether typing in directly or adding comments and suggestions is really powerful and it dramatically reduces the need for emailing things round.

Getting the most out of it does need a bit of planning though, particularly looking at folder structures and so forth. It’s tempting to just chuck everything in a flat structure and let the search do its job, but in reality having some order really helps people find their way around.

Again, as well as being web based, there are mobile apps too, which means that folk can get involved on any reasonably modern device. Handy.

Trello

Trello is a simple web app for making lists and sharing them with people. You create a board, add some lists and then add items to the list. People can then comment on them, add due dates, add additional sub task lists, label them and so forth.

Really it’s a bunch of different features that can be used however the group collaborating decide to use them, which makes it really powerful. Using Trello, we can see at a glance how certain actions are progressing and which need a little nudge to get going again.

And guess what? As well as the web, there are mobile and desktop apps for Trello. Boom.

Thoughts on getting the most out of these tools

  • Sometimes a human API beats a computer’s one – while all the tools above can integrate with one another, sometimes it isn’t always all that helpful to do so. Often, it takes the eye and skill of a human being to link this Trello board to that Google Doc, or post that link in this Slack channel
  • Don’t assume they are instantly easy to use – compared to many fully fledged desktop applications, these things are easy to pick up. That doesn’t mean that it will happen straight away however and it’s worth working with your team to ensure they are confident in using them
  • It’s worth thinking about information security – whilst not letting it get in the way of doing good work. Not every bit of data is appropriate to be stored on these tools, particularly when you are using the free, consumer version of them, and it’s worth thinking about the nature of what you are sharing before you share it.

Photo credit: Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash