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 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 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

Five for Friday (16/6/17)

Another week in which technology seems the least important thing in the world. Still, I’ve got nothing else to give, so here goes.

  1. Join the DH digital communities and channels team – two great jobs going on a great team at the Department of Health.
  2. Slack is raising another $500 million — and has attracted interest from a range of big buyers like Amazon – Slack is a really interesting tool. I swing wildly from thinking it’s not really that signficiant to considering it the harbinger of a new way of doing technology within organisations. As ever the truth is somewhere in the middle. The idea of Amazon buying it does not make a huge amount of sense to me. Amazon have inroads into big enterprise IT through their web services division of course, leading the way in the infrastructure as a service bit of cloud. They don’t have much (any?) of a footprint in software as a service – tools that actual users actually use. Do they want to get into that space? I’ve no idea but surely Google would be a better fit for Slack, and it would help out with the moribund and confusing state of the G Suite’s communications tools (Hangouts seems to have stagnated for years now).
  3. Survey points to digital skills gap in civil service and Public sector struggling with cloud due to skills shortage – to both of which my response is “yes, and?”. Seems to me that we see a lot of reporting of the problem with digital skills/confidence/mindset but very few examples or ideas around how to tackle it. If you’ve ideas to share, then please do so in the Digital Skills in the Workplace group on LinkedIn.
  4. History by lawsuit: After Gawker’s demise, the “inventor of e-mail” targets Techdirt – fascinating mixture of computer history combined with out and out oddness. The man who wrote a program called EMAIL claims this means he invested the generic tool e-mail.
  5. Minimum Viable Architecture – good enough is good enough in an enterprise – nice bit of myth-busting around the supposedly special requirements of IT in a larger organisation. The word ‘enterprise’ is used to justify all sorts of crap: higher prices, costly maintenance agreements, hard to use and complicated tools. The fact is that the only difference is one of time – bigger organisations have existed longer than most small ones and thus have built up baggage around infrastructure and process. Achieving change in such organisations means trying to reduce that cruft… as James notes in his post “If enterprises are going to drive a successful digital transformation, and develop a culture that supports agile development and devops, then they need less architecture, not more of it.”


These have mostly all been tweeted during the week, and you can find everything I’ve found interesting and bookmarked here.

Bits and bobs for Thursday 29 January 2015


An occasional effort to link to interesting things I have seen. Not convinced about the format yet – let me know what you think.

  • One of my current obsessions is around mobile messaging apps. This interview with the CEO of Kik helps explains why this space is so exciting.
  • Slack has bought a company that does screensharing and voice chat to add to its text based workplace group chat thing. Makes Slack potentially more attractive to those looking for something approaching an all in one internal comms thing. For me though, it doesn’t move the workplace tech conversation on far enough.
  • A post about the future of Medium – published on Medium, of course. I really can’t personally figure out if Medium is incredibly interesting or just really boring. Could go either way – and the crunch will be when it begins to try and create revenue, I suspect.
  • A nice example from Simon Wardley on how to use his value chain mapping method.
  • Tumblr is rolling out new tools in its editor to help people use it to write longer form articles – a bit like Medium. Interesting, but one cannot help but wonder whether this goes against what made Tumblr popular with the people it’s popular with – i.e. quick sharing of memes, videos and so on. Is this Yahoo! starting to fiddle with its marquee purchase?