Both online collaboration management and project management software share four beneficial characteristics: (1) web-based, (2) scalable pricing models, (3) access rights and (4) secure archives. Software companies name their systems with whatever seems most marketable so their names don’t always truly reflect what they do. These systems also share many features but have one big difference: collaboration systems help groups communicate more efficiently and project management systems help those in charge track productivity and task status.
Collaboration software, or groupware, has been around for nearly 30 years but the number of systems available has ballooned in the last decade, making them more affordable. There are dozens of reliable options but some of the more popular systems include: Basecamp, Brightpod, Huddle, LiquidPlanner, Kavi, Microsoft Project, and Wrike. Many systems position themselves as either collaboration software, project management software, or both. All of these systems are designed to facilitate information-sharing between the leadership of a collaborative group (e.g. board, committee, and team) and a specific set of stakeholders.
Both collaboration management and project management systems add value along with new problems that you are at risk of if you don’t think ahead. All these systems represent a huge advancement in technology from even a decade ago that can save you time, money, and stress. While all the systems boast of ‘easy set-up and immediate use’ it is actually a much bigger deal. Switching to one of these systems is really a process improvement project that requires you to understand how the common benefits shared by these systems will make you sink in Quicksand if you aren’t careful.
Web-based software allows all users with an internet connection to access the system on multiple platforms without downloading anything to their computer or device. You can access these systems through a web browser on your computer, smartphone, or tablet with any internet connection. The software developer (vendor) builds one system which they continually maintain and hopefully evolve. They provide access to their product, support, and secure hosting that is far superior to what most organizations would be able to provide in-house. Since your files will live on ‘the cloud’ – you should have access to them from anywhere.
Part of the way this is affordable is that the software is intended to meet the needs of all of the vendor’s clients. This means that the system can only be configured within the range of choices provided and that additional functionality will likely not be available. Most systems pride themselves on easy programming-free interfaces that someone with basic computer skills can configure, manage and use without much trouble. You configure and brand (logo, colors) your online space and begin using it immediately.
Before web-based software was the norm, this type of system was affordable only to Fortune 500 companies. Now, this sophisticated software is affordable to a wide range of organizations including non-profits, trade associations, small businesses, and consultants. You can’t buy these systems outright so you are making a commitment to an ongoing monthly cost which is significantly less than purchasing the software licenses, servers and IT personnel yourself. They calculate their monthly fees (normally all inclusive) based on the number of users, groups or projects which most publish on their website– if they don’t it generally means they are on the more pricy side. While the business model ensures these systems are significantly cheaper than traditional software/on-site hosting, small organizations should be aware that software companies define heavy usage differently than smaller organizations with large membership rosters, multiple collaborative groups or large teams do.
Some organizations are able to purchase expensive software through one-time budget allocations or grants but have a hard time adding ongoing expenses. While generally affordable, using any of these systems adds an ongoing monthly expense that your organization will need to budget for the foreseeable future. The good news is that if you make the system work for you there should be enough cost savings within a year that it starts paying for itself.
Letting all users view all content is not always appropriate and may create additional conflict or rumors. So, these systems are password-protected and only allow those with approved accounts access to view/contribute to the information within the system. Since most organizations don’t want their business plastered all over the internet, this is a major advantage to just having a public website where anyone can access information. Once you invite users to the system, you can fully control who can see what and who can contribute so you maintain control of the system. This feature is standard on all systems although it can be called permissions, access rights or access control.
You can control access to the system and its contents which can reduce conflicts and rumors. However, if you aren’t transparent about who gets to see what and why you will make more troubles for yourself. This feature works best when you think through this issue before the system is introduced to potential users. People should be put into permission categories based on role and/or responsibilities, not personalities. Having a clear strategy for access that can be articulated creates transparency which reduces complaints.
All of these types of systems automatically track and archive content so you always have an electronic paper trail. Every piece of information that crosses the system and allow you to search through them so you don’t have to piecemeal an archive together from various inboxes and server sites.
Organizations stop using these systems for a variety of reasons. When you end your contract, you will likely receive download information or a CD-ROM with your files so technically you have a paper trail. However, they may not be provided in a format that is easy to search. Also, if you move to another system you have to configure and populate that new system from scratch – these systems are not inter-operable. The best way to address this issue is to find out what happens to your content when your contract ends ahead of time.
In conclusion, the characteristics shared by both online collaboration management and project management systems can add tons of value to your organization or collaborative group for a reasonable price. At the same time, they can suck up time and complicate simple tasks if you aren’t prepared. To make sure you have the right type of system and you are using it correctly, it’s important to understand how the systems are the same, how they different and how you get the most out of them. In conclusion, project and collaboration management software are similar in one main way: if you don’t plan ahead, both systems will sink in Quicksand.