Conflicting personalities, control freaks, and co-workers who don't pull their share of the load are just a few of the potential problems you can encounter when working as a team, but at least sharing files and keeping track of the workload have gotten easier. These project management and collaboration tools help managers monitor workflow by allowing them to see who's doing what and who's running behind schedule. The tools also help employees collaborate by letting them swap files, edit group documents, and bandy ideas in chat rooms and on discussion boards.
The following programs are hosted, Web-based applications, meaning there's nothing to install on your computer or company servers. Most of them are so easy to set up and use that you won't even be tempted to speed-dial your tech guy. And you can access these services from home, the office, or anywhere you have an Internet connection, which makes it easier for your home office team to travel and for your satellite office employees to stay in the loop and feel part of the team.
Some of the programs can perform pretty neat tricks, like figuring out that if Steve in marketing says he will have his project done on Tuesday, you shouldn't expect it until Thursday. They might also keep bosses from doling out yet another big assignment to an overstretched team. And, of course, there are some features of questionable value, like letting employees see their work files while they fiddle away on Facebook. At least those employees will be fully aware of what they are blowing off to play Scrabulous.
Best For: Sharing files
What it is: Online software that helps teams track milestones and collaborate on documents
Huddle makes it easy to share and edit files. You can upload files into Huddle or create Word and Excel documents from scratch and edit them in the browser window. Huddle saves each version of the document as team members make changes. You can also keep track of tasks and deadlines on a shared calendar. The system lets you see who is online and when team members last logged on. Huddleeven>offers an easy-to-install Facebook application so you can access your files from your Facebook profile.
Drawback: The ability to invite friends of friends on Facebook to participate in a project may not be a good thing.
Price: From free for three projects and 1 GB of storage to about $98 a month for 50 projects and 35 GB of storage
Best For: Setting realistic deadlines
What it is: Web-based project management software
What's cool: LiquidPlanner employs something called "probabilistic" scheduling, which draws on employees' own estimates as well as their track records to determine how close a particular task and the project as a whole are to completion. LiquidPlanner also helps you spot bottlenecks, because users can flag a task that can't begin until another task is finished. Employees can share documents, post comments, and add profile photos.
Drawbacks: Team members can upload and download documents related to a task, but they can't edit tasks inside LiquidPlanner. Deadlines are displayed on a Gantt chart, a bar chart traditionally used by project managers. You can't view them on a regular calendar.
Price: $35 per user per month; $25 per user per month if you pay for the full year up-front
Best For: Holding virtual round-table discussions
What it is: An online workspace where employees can hold meetings and manage to-do lists
What's cool: Off-site employees can stay in the loop with virtual meetings. These are online gathering places where attendees can chat in real time, display documents for the group, and even gawk at one another via webcam. The team can also create group opinion polls, upload files to a shared folder, and discuss topics in a forum. You can even use WebOffice to create other business applications, including those for creating time sheets, tracking employee vacation days, and responding to customer service inquiries.
Drawback: You have to pay extra to use the virtual meeting tools.
Price: From $60 per month for five members to $2,500 per month for 500 members. Virtual meetings cost an additional $250 to $375 a month.
Best For: Hashing out graphic designs
What it is: An online collaboration space for visual projects, such as marketing brochures and packaging designs
What's cool: ConceptShare acts as a proverbial conference room table on which a range of visual designs can be spread out and pored over by the necessary parties. After an employee uploads, say, a PDF or JPEG, the image is displayed on the screen. Users can digitally mark up the visual with a fat red pen, add comments, and chat in real time.
Drawback: Although any number of users can comment on visuals, only a limited number may start new projects.
Price: Free for one project. For multiple projects, pricing ranges from $19 per month for 25 active projects to $99 per month for 100 projects. A one-month discount is available for annual billing.
Best For: Wiki-ing your way through a project
What it is: Web-based software for creating wikis and sharing documents
What's cool: You get a password-protected site at which employees can craft language for many types of projects, including advertising campaigns and press releases, using wikis -- documents that may be altered by any member of the group in an easy-to-use online editor. Nuospace tracks changes to your wikis and makes it easy to see what was changed each time they were edited. Employees can also share other files and make comments on revisions. Files can be marked confidential, putting them out of reach of other team members.
Drawback: The system lacks scheduling and task management features that other collaboration tools include.
Price: Free for up to 200 MB worth of documents. Additional space can be purchased starting at $50 a month for 1 GB.
Best For: Managing a project's budget
What it is: A heavy-duty online project management tool
What's cool: Daptiv helps project managers allocate resources, including budgets and manpower. The system can send up a red flag when a manager tries to add a new task to an overscheduled product development team, for example. Daptiv also lets employees share files, create to-do lists, and view project calendars. You can use Daptiv to build other applications that let you, say, compile press clippings and send problems to the IT help desk.
Drawback: For simple collaboration and task lists, more affordable and easier-to-use systems are available.
Price: From $50 per user per month, with a minimum of 10 users. There's a standard training and configuration fee of about $1,500, which can reach up to $12,000 or more depending on the size of the group.