When employees spend a lot of time in the field, it can be difficult to manage projects and share information. Especially when those employees are actually out in the middle of a giant field. That was the situation at Stranger's Hill Organics, an 81-acre farm in Bloomington, Indiana, that grows organic produce and sells it to Whole Foods Market, food co-ops, and farmers' markets. Almost two years ago, the farm's founders, Dale and Lee Jones, brought on four new partners to help fund an expansion. That created some problems. The founders continued to work at the farm, but the new partners held jobs elsewhere and could make it out there only a few hours a week. That made it difficult for the owners to discuss topics such as tax planning, marketing budgets, and which crops were ready for harvest. "It was almost impossible to get everyone together on a regular basis," says Rick Dietz, one of the new partners.
Things changed last summer, when the owners began using Web-based collaboration software that allows them to create a central repository for information. The farmers now post updates using a laptop in the farmhouse. Each day, the farm's manager, Vanessa Caruso, logs in to see which tasks, such as fixing a barn's leaky roof, the partners have assigned. "We now have a way for everyone to communicate regardless of where we are," says Dietz.
Although e-mail remains the primary method of office communication, businesses -- particularly those that rely on a remote work force -- are increasingly turning to programs designed specifically for office collaboration. According to a recent survey of 118 organizations conducted by the Institute for Corporate Productivity and HR.com, an online community for human resources professionals, about 22 percent of companies use real-time collaboration tools for online meetings. Another 24 percent use document-sharing software.
E-mail has limitations, especially as a project management tool. Information gets buried in inboxes, team members get left off of important e-mail chains, and questions such as "Do I have the latest version of the document?" or "When was that deadline again?" pop up frequently. An emerging breed of low-cost tools -- including Basecamp, Box, Huddle, Jive, and Socialtext -- are making project collaboration much easier. "Companies have been looking for ways to make up for the overreliance on e-mail as a collaborative tool," says Jeffrey Mann, an analyst with Gartner. "Now we're seeing the evolution of tools that tackle everything e-mail is bad at -- like allowing users to follow a discussion, share files, monitor workflow, and get the latest status on tasks and projects."
How can you tell which of the many new tools is the best fit for your organization? The key is carefully analyzing the needs of the employees, says Jacob McNulty, president of Orbital RPM, a Denver consulting firm that helps companies improve collaboration. "Too often, firms get caught up looking for the newest feature rather than spending the time to understand the problem they're trying to solve," he says. "And, if you don't get buy-in from your users, that will lead to a waste of time and money."
To help his clients choose the right tool, McNulty gives each employee a survey about the people with whom he or she frequently interacts. He looks for possible bottlenecks and gaps in communication. If, for instance, employees often collaborate on documents, a wiki may be the easiest solution. That's what McNulty recommended for the Shackleton Group, a 15-person consulting firm in Lakewood, Colorado, that specializes in training programs and management strategies for the defense industry. Its employees travel frequently to meet with clients, and the firm's major challenge was keeping track of projects and making sure everyone had the most up-to-date versions of client documents. McNulty suggested the employees use Socialtext, a wiki-based tool, to help them create and maintain a central location for their important information.
McNulty recommends that small and midsize companies use hosted tools instead of installing software on their own servers. Although some companies worry about security and system downtime, McNulty says the advantage of a hosted system -- letting someone else deal with managing the actual technology -- outweighs the risks. "Vendors are aware of this fear and have advanced technology to mitigate data loss even if the system were to go down temporarily," he says. To minimize these sorts of system outages, McNulty suggests that businesses avoid free tools. By using a paid service, he says, companies can demand a written guarantee that the system will be accessible.
When Stranger's Hill Organics partner Dietz decided to get a document-sharing tool for the farm, he knew he wanted to use a hosted service. Dietz, who is the IT director for the city of Bloomington, thought it would be less of a hassle to set up and maintain. "I didn't have the time to be the farm's system administrator as well," he says. He also wanted a tool that was inexpensive and easy to use. His choice: Basecamp, a Web-based collaboration program he had used before. For $24 a month, it offers to-do lists, a wiki, a chatroom, 3GB of file storage, and a function that lets users set milestones and track due dates. Dietz was able to set everything up in a few hours. His only complaint is that Basecamp doesn't include a shared calendar.
Now the partners use Basecamp to discuss strategic decisions and keep up to date on marketing efforts, crop conditions, and chores. Through Basecamp, the partners also check a daily log from Caruso, the farm's manager, who documents what happens in the fields. Among her recent posts: "Fixed a little wind damage on the field. Not too bad, though. Much warmer and windy. Mice seem to be eating squash seeds, so I moved all trays up to the cloche." Entries like that help all the partners sleep a little easier.
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