Searching for a Shared Virtual Workspace?

3652874737_611a2ee7b2In my coaching practice, I am increasingly looking for ways to work with my clients on shared documents and projects online. I am looking to online solutions for two reasons:

  1. It allows my client and me to access documents and work on them collaboratively at any time. My clients are busy people who need the flexibility to work on their own schedules.
  2. My practice includes long-distance coaching using telephone, IM (Instant Messaging) etc. When we need to work on or exchange documents, PDF, email, and fax are ineffective tools.

We want to be able to set up an online workspace to work on documents and projects in one place. We must be able to:

  • Post and edit documents online;
  • Automatically sync our calendars (esp. Outlook), with online calendars and visa versa;
  • Merge online calendars into group calendars to see at a glance when every individual is busy/free;
  • Post discussion threads;
  • Receive email or SMS (‘text’) alerts whenever any of the first three functions (documents, calendars, discussion threads) have been changed or added to by group members.

Pretty simple right? You’d think so. I went to the first two places that I knew offered some or all of these services: Google & Microsoft. Big disappointment.

Google Groups

The Good News
It’s free. That’s hard to beat. And Google has two other strengths as a place to get work done: a) it is fully web-based, and b) there is a wealth of various tools.

Being web-based means that not only can you store and view documents, discussions, and calendars, but they can also all be edited and shared right in the browser. No client of any kind required on your computer (other than a web browser); no need to ever download anything unless you want to sync items for work off-line.

A particularly powerful tool is the Forms function available through the Google Spreadsheet. This allows you to create a survey that can be set up in a number of different ways and tie it to a spreadsheet that collects the response data. I have used it several times and love it. It does not have the power and ‘polish’ of some of the dedicated online survey offerings (like those from Constant Contact), but it is secure, flexible, and free. Google Forms has a basic template collection that allows you to set up your survey or questionnaire in a number of attractive ways with minimal design time.

The wealth of tools available on the Google site is truly impressive. Google Groups, Docs, Calendar, Google Talk (IM), Blogger, Picasa, on and on… But that brings me to…

The Bad News
For such a wealth of tools, the lack of integration floored me. Put simply, there is almost NO way of using one tool in an integrated fashion with another. Want to list your shared Google Docs in a Google Group? Can’t do that. Want to sync your Google Calendars to create a shared group calendar within Google Groups? Can’t do that either. Want to embed a Google Docs spreadsheet in a Google  Docs document? Nope. The list of what you can’t do goes on and on.

Recommendation:
Use Google if you want a free tool to share work online, but don’t expect much. The lack of integration at this point in the game is frustrating. It is especially odd as Google has on its hands a very powerful collection of individual tools. It makes no sense that they aren’t better integrated.

Windows Office Live

The Good News
Probably the two biggest positives with the Microsoft tools are that a) they are pretty tightly integrated with Microsoft Office (especially Office 2007) and b) there is much more storage space available (5 GB vs. Google’s 100 MB).

If you have an Office Live account, which is free, you can save your Office (Word, Excel, etc.) documents directly to your online workspace. There you can invite others to view and edit them.

There is notification available for most kinds of activity in an Office Live workspace.

The Bad News
While the various tools are more tightly integrated via the copy of Office you have sitting on your computer, the net useability is no greater than the Google offering. The weaknesses fall into three areas:

  • Anyone accessing documents on your shared workspace must own a copy of MS Office for full editing and integration functionality. This ‘Microsoft customer only’ restriction is a serious one. There is probably a level of useability with Open Office, but that is still a far cry from the platform independence of Google Documents.
  • There is no way to edit online. This means that if you are on the road, you can’t easily get at your documents from an internet café or most smart phones (not that editing Google Documents from a smart phone is any picnic, but at least it can be done).
  • The calendar integration is a nightmare. I have spent hours trying to figure out how to set up a calendar on Office Live that syncs with my Outlook calendar. Not only does that not work, it took me forever to find where my calendar does go when I ‘publish’ it online (it goes to a site with the address starting calendars.office.microsoft.com, which is not linked to from the rest of the Office Live site that I can find). And you can’t sync two ways. You can only sync your online calendar to Outlook, not the other way around. That is a serious limitation for a ‘live’ group workspace.
  • Another weakness is the confused relationship between Windows Live, Office Live, and Office Live Small Business. Oh wait – there’s also Microsoft Groove! The distinction between these offerings is unclear, and there doesn’t seem to be any integration between Windows Live (things like Messenger) and Office Live. Further, the distinction between the different ‘Lives’ is unclear. At least in Google, what exactly each tool is for is clear, even if they don’t play well together.

Conclusion?

The tool I want does not exist. Given the huge number of players in this field, and the explosion of interest in virtual, collaborative learning and working, I’m surprised. I looked at some for-pay sites as well, like Central Desktop. This certainly does the job better than either Microsoft or Google, but still doesn’t do some of the basic functions (like syncing and merging multiple calendars). Considering that Central Desktop charges a fee I would expect it to have serious bells and whistles. Not so. I am assuming that somewhere out there, living inside some high-end intranet, there is a proprietary tool that does this, but it certainly isn’t available to the rest of us.

So what’s the conclusion? We have to use separate tools to cobble together a collaborative virtual work space: Microsoft has pretty good Office integration (with the glaring exception of the Outlook Calendar), Google has lots of good separate sharing tools, Tungle does a fantastic group calendar, Central Desktop does a decent job but charges.

If I had to pick one system, Google’s is probably the closest. Google is pretty good at syncing calendars in ways that you can share, at hosting blogs, storing and editing documents right in the HTML/Web environment, and providing a very basic shared space in Google Groups. No other site offers all of these “in one place”. But then that’s the biggest frustration with Google, their’s isn’t ‘in one place’ either. You have to hop from Calendar to Docs to Blogger to Groups and back again to get a sense of what your group is up to. How a site could house all of these tools separately and not bring them together in one interface is a complete mystery to me. They even have the interface already – set up a tabbed version of iGoogle and see what I mean!

Google isn’t resting (or rather sitting) on its laurels. There is a new sharing project in early development called Google Wave that allows users to share ideas, files, documents, video and audio in real time (think IM) and asynchronously (think ‘posting’). Now if they could integrate a real group calendar function, and fully editable Google Docs into that, we may be getting somewhere!

I am really looking forward to reading other’s solutions in the quest for shared virtual workspaces.

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