Work in Groups

Aug 27, 2008

Sept 2008 Issue

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Working in groups with free online tools has become an American passion. In his great 19th-century, two-volume work Democracy in America, Alexis deTocqueville estimated that there were more independent associations in America than there were individuals.

With the late-20th-century phenomenon of Bowling Alone (as described in Robert Putnam’s book), we grew more isolated as couch potatoes and screen-agers, but with the exponential growth in social networking services and groupware tools we seem to be getting together again. If deTocqueville’s estimate is not true today, it is likely to be soon.

Social networking websites such as MySpace and Facebook have hundreds of millions of users, with half a million new registrations a day. I found it hard to get reliable estimates of collaborative groupware tools and the number of groups using them. Some of the newest ones are not designed primarily for social networking, but for working together online and sharing resources over the web, which has been the main use for Lotus Notes for 2 decades. Notes has 135 million users, according to IBM.

The best-known free group tool is Yahoo! Groups, which began as community bulletin boards 20 years ago and grew with Yahoo!’s acquisition of eGroups in 1999. I belong to many Yahoo! Groups, used mostly as mailing lists and a bit of file storage.

Next most familiar are Google Groups, which began life on the Usenet and whose archive at Deja News was acquired by Google in 2001. Like Yahoo!, Google Groups are mostly mailing lists, but in 2006 Google began adding tools such as collaborative webpages.

Microsoft has its own MSN Groups, which began in the 1990s as "communities" of public interest and chat rooms. They now offer document folders, photo albums, and list pages.

Getting any real work done together online needs more than email and file sharing. Commercial groupware such as the suite from 37Signals LLC shows what is possible. It includes Basecamp, with to-do lists, milestone management, file sharing, and forum-style messaging; Campfire, with business-oriented chat; and Backpack, with user webpages and a shared calendar.

You can probably cobble together a number of capabilities by combining free online services, but there are now some omnibus software-as-a-service sites that aim to integrate it all for you.

AirSet offers a "web computer" to your group with a wide suite of applications, including webpages, a wiki, and a blog. You can upload files and maintain playlists and albums for multimedia. AirSet charges monthly fees if you want to exceed the monthly free storage.

AirSet lets you create your group and send invitations to your friends. No one else knows about your group except your members. A powerful feature is messages that you can receive by email or by text message to your phone. This makes it easy to arrange a quick telephone meeting to make important decisions.

wiggio.com is a productivity tool, plain and simple, and not a social network. It has a very straightforward, step-by-step interface to accomplish its major tasks such as the shared calendar, shared file uploads, and meetings (both chat and free teleconference are built in). Sticky notes accumulate into a quick, action-oriented blog. Fast polls let you make group decisions without time-wasting meetings. Like AirSet, wiggio messaging can send text messages to phones or send emails. It can also record and send voice notes. Members set their personal preferences as to type of alert message and reminder times for events.

While AirSet was developed by a group with close ties to the University of California–Berkeley, wiggio is the brainchild of two Cornell University seniors.

AirSet’s themes are "the ultimate life organizer for busy people," and "organize busy work and family life with shared online calendars." It aims at creating family archives that will become heirlooms handed down through the generations.

wiggio is squarely aimed at students who are asked to work in groups by professors who hope to instill teamwork skills in their students. Cornell’s entering freshman class will have wiggio groups preregistered for all the dorm floors, and many professors will assign classes to groups. Students protested last year when professors tried to join the students’ social networks for class-work purposes.

Can business and technical groups benefit from these online collaboration suites for families and students? They are outside the corporate firewall, so companies may resist, but these tools are raising expectations for future workers that it should be very easy to work in groups online.