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Online collaboration is a hot, hot, hot topic in 2009. Why? The proliferation of free or inexpensive Internet collaboration tools, coupled with a down economy, has made many people hungry to learn more about ways to work with others online—and save money in the process.
Here’s a look at some key collaboration tools that are widely available for your use, along with some handy pointers for making the most of working with others online.
1. Cut Costs with Online Meetings
In tough times, travel expenses are usually among the first items to get cut from the budget. Online conferencing comes to the rescue. Instead of traveling across the country (or even across town), consider whether you can get your point across in an online conference. Improved program features as well as blazingfast data speeds make it simple and affordable for even the smallest firms to hold meetings on the Internet. The ultimate “in person” experience is probably provided by Cisco’s Telepresence technology, but many midsize to small firms will not want to shell out the price for that experience. Fortunately, some reasonably priced alternatives can still get you up and meeting in no time.
At their core all these services facilitate “screen sharing,” which enables a meeting’s host to share his or her desktop with all other meeting attendees. Everyone can view the shared documents or other presentations, which they can also annotate or mark up on-screen. Many of these services also support video and audio conferencing, chat functions and whiteboards.
Free meeting tools include Adobe ConnectNow (www.adobe.com), which provides a meeting environment for up to three participants; fee-based ConnectNow “Pro” plans are available for meetings with up to 1,500 attendees. Other services offering free online meeting facilities include Yugma (www.yugma.com), which allows up to 10 attendees for free, and Vyew, which allows up to 20 attendees. They provide similar services, with additional options for a fee.
For the full online meeting experience, use a service like GoToMeeting or WebEx. In addition to the features offered by the other companies, these services allow multiple presenters and a recording of your meeting for future viewing, among other things—all for the bargain price of around $50 per month. There is amazing ROI on these tools. Avoiding just one trip out of the office will pay for them.
2. Try Instant Messaging
Instant messaging (IM) is poised to overtake e-mail as the most popular online communications tool, and not just among teenagers. People are now sending trillions of instant messages a year in personal and business settings.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that instant messages are by their nature very short, they can be very effective collaboration tools—for certain purposes. The key to their successful use for collaboration requires a solid understanding of their limitations and where they make the most sense. They inhabit a gray area between synchronous tools (real-time, as in phone calls) and asynchronous tools (timeshifted, as in e-mail). When placed in this context, you can see where IM can become especially valuable. This is usually for asking quick questions, getting updates or finding whether someone is online and available to talk. Unlike voice mail and e-mail, you can reach someone who can provide answers when you need them rather than wonder if they’ve read your e-mail or listened to your voice mail.
The most commonly used IM programs include Yahoo Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger, Google Talk, ICQ and Jabber. All of them are free. (See the sidebar at the end of this article for quick pointers on using them).
3. Send Extra-Large Files for Free
Sending big files by e-mail can be a pain, especially if your recipient’s IT department or e-mail provider has placed a limit on file sizes. But that doesn’t mean you have to go to the trouble and expense of dumping those big files onto a CD and sending them by overnight express mail. Thankfully, there are several services that make it easy to transfer large files via the Internet.
For no charge, YouSendIt lets you send and receive files up to 100MB in size. But what if you have a much bigger file to transfer? You can always pay YouSendIt $9.99 a month to send files up to 2GB, but there are other options you can use for free.
Try DropSend for fi les up to 1GB, FileDropper for files up to 5GB, and FileAI, which has no fi le limit. You can also set up your own DropBox, where you can just drag files to your online 2GB storage folder for others to access.
4. Know the Limits of the Online Office
The potential benefits of online document creation sites like Google Docs, Zoho and Adobe Buzzword have been touted for the past couple of years. There are, though, reasons that lawyers are not flocking in droves to these sites. For one thing, while these sites have the basics for creating simple documents, they don’t have the more advanced features that you find in MS Word or Corel WordPerfect. There are also security concerns involved in using these sites. Although they can be protected with passwords, they are probably not secure enough for really sensitive or confidential information. Still, while they won’t replace your word processor (at least not yet—they are improving and adding new features), don’t underestimate their huge potential for collaborative purposes.
Consider using them for quickly creating first drafts of a document. If, for example, you want one or more clients to review an agreement and make any necessary changes, you can upload the file to Google Docs so they can make required changes, then you can download and delete the online file once your clients’ review is complete. This is a great way to allow multiple people to review, change and sign off on a document in a fraction of the time it would take with e-mail. You will get hooked after trying this once—we guarantee it.
5. Control the Information Overload
Blogs, RSS feeds, Facebook, LinkedIn, LegallyMinded, Twitter…. Keeping up with, much less actually using, all the online collaboration is almost impossible. Before you know it, the number of “silos” of information you must visit every day just to keep up multiplies to the point where you don’t get any actual work done. How do you stop the madness? Like it or not, you must find a way to reduce the number of silos you have to visit, or you risk abandoning some or all of them. You can also consider using one of the “lifestreaming” sites. These are services that can aggregate your online content into one place.
Perhaps the most popular is FriendFeed, which combines information from over 50 blogging, news, social networking, music and video sites in one place. Other lifestreaming tools include Socialthing and lifestrea.ms.
6. Have an Open Mind and Reasonable Expectations
All of us have our own comfort zone when it comes to how we collaborate with clients and others. And many will have to break out of that comfort zone to use some of the new collaboration tools. But think of how your current methods can leave you tired, frustrated and dissatisfied. Think of e-mail—which is undeniably a useful collaboration tool, but for many of us, it’s also the bane of our existence.
So are you prepared to seek out new and more satisfying ways to work with others? Focus on a project at hand and identify one or two tools that will make completing that project easier. Avoid e-mailing document drafts back and forth by using an online document creation site instead. Try Web meetings or videoconferencing so you don’t waste time and money on unnecessary traveling. Subscribe to a social networking site or an RSS feed to have relevant content delivered to you. Open your mind and pursue some of the new ways to work with others. Trust us, you’ll be glad you did.
Dennis Kennedy is an information technology lawyer and legal technology writer based in St. Louis, MO. He is a frequent speaker on technology in law practice and authors the award-winning blog DennisKennedy.com. He is coauthor, with Tom Mighell, of The Lawyer’s Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies (ABA, 2008).
Tom Mighell is a Senior Manager of Consulting at Fios, Inc., an ediscovery services company. A former senior counsel, he is also the immediate Past Chair of ABA TECHSHOW and publisher of the awardwinning legal research blog Inter-Alia.net.
Get more collaboration tips from Tom Mighell and Dennis Kennedy at these ABA TECHSHOW 2009 programs:
KEEPING UP WITH COLLABORATION TOOLS
Do you want to learn more about collaboration tools and tactics? Follow these pointers.