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Searching for a Shared Virtual Workspace?

Searching for a Shared Virtual Workspace?

Searching for a Shared Virtual Workspace?

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      In 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:

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      • 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.

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      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).

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      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.

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      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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      Last Updated on September 18, 2019

      How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

      How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

      Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

      I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

      One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

      Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

      The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

      And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

      What to Write Down

      Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

      Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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      Dates of Events

      Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

      For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

      Names of People

      Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

      Theories or Frameworks

      Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

      Definitions

      Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

      Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

      Arguments and Debates

      Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

      This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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      Images

      Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

      Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

      Other Stuff

      Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

      I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

      Your Own Questions

      Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

      3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

      You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

      1. Outlining

      Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

      Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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      For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

      2. Mind-Mapping

      For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

      Here’s the idea:

      In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

      The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

      If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

      You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

      3. The Cornell System

      The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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      About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

      You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

      In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

      You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

      The Bottom Line

      I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

      I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

      More About Note-Taking

      Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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