Vol. 39, No. 3

All about that Basecamp: A case study from the Indianapolis Bar Association

by Marilyn Cavicchia

In the almost two years that the Indianapolis Bar Association has been using the web-based product Basecamp to organize its collaborative work, “We’re a much happier staff,” said Julie Armstrong, the bar’s executive director.

Why? For one thing, said Tara Moore, senior design specialist at the Indy Bar, it facilitates adjusting deadlines and shifting workloads depending on who is overloaded and who has “wiggle room” and can help another staff member.

But, noted Mary Kay Price, director of marketing and communications, the popular project management tool is just that—a tool.

If your staff isn’t willing to work together effectively in other ways, she explained to attendees at the 2014 National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section Workshop, Basecamp or any similar product “is not going to solve all your problems.”

As much as he loves Basecamp, agreed Chris Walsh, director of program and events, some things are still better handled face to face or via an email or phone call.

Together, the panel of four gave a well-rounded impression of Basecamp and how to use it to foster collaboration while still maintaining a measure of individual autonomy.

What the bar was looking for

Walsh, who was hired after the bar had started using Basecamp, “can’t imagine what it was like before.” The Indy Bar gets more done with nine staff people, thanks in part to this tool, than his previous association did with 30.

Price does remember what it was like. Each staff person had his or her own self-created task lists and deadlines. The weekly staff meeting was largely devoted to reports on each person’s tasks. There was often little to no collaboration.

The bar spent about two years looking for the right app to meet its needs, Price said. Along with the usual requirements of user friendliness and a cost that could be justified, the bar had a few specific needs:

  • A contract that covered unlimited projects and uses. The bar has about 230 events per year, Price explained, and didn’t want to “max out.”
  • Integration with email, and accessibility on multiple platforms. The bar planned to be “aggressive” in eliminating paper task lists and moving staff members over to the new system, Price explained—so that new system had to work wherever each staff member was at the time.
  • Templates that would work well for CLE programs.

In January 2013, the bar tested Basecamp with two or three projects involving five staff members. The following month, all staff members and projects were transitioned over. There are now more than 300 active projects and more than 180 archived. The 81 users on the Indy Bar account include staff members, select volunteers, and a few allies and partners.

Another factor that led the Indy Bar to choose Basecamp was that it offers a month-to month option, which the bar selected. Armstrong appreciates that if the bar ever decides to quit using it, there’s an option to download everything first. Other products that the Indy Bar considered and that others may wish to look into include 5pm, CA PPM, ProjectManager.com, and Teamwork.

How it works

When a new project arises, the staff liaison or manager for the project enters it in Basecamp, along with to-do lists for all the different aspects. But before that, Price said, the project manager first talks to the others who will be involved in the project to make sure that everyone’s clear on what needs to happen when.

Because Basecamp is accessible from multiple platforms and integrates with email, Price noted, those involved in a project can respond to a to-do item or a message about the project without having to open the app. Price herself doesn’t like the Basecamp mobile app as well as the web version, and because the website is optimized for mobile phones and iPads, she never has to use the mobile app.

To avoid “unwanted collaboration,” Price added, only those assigned to a particular project can see the tasks and other information associated with it. In-person meetings are not managed via Basecamp, she said—that’s still done via Outlook.

But much of the discussion—and passing of drafts—about a project is done in Basecamp; one event involved 44 individual discussions. Those discussions and other details can provide a useful “snapshot” of a project and how it is unfolding or, once it’s complete, the process by which everything came together. Walsh also appreciates the templates that prevent him from having to start from scratch each time there’s a new event that’s similar to a previous one.

As a new employee, he added, it was very useful to be able to look back at the information regarding past events that were similar to the ones he needed to coordinate. This was much easier for events done after the bar started using Basecamp, he said; for anything in 2012 or before, “You have to pick through the shared drive, emails, and paper files.”

Because Indy Bar staff members track how they spend their time, Moore added, the detailed information about specific projects and tasks can be useful when doing time sheets. Moore also appreciates that her Outlook inbox now has five to 10 messages in it—“not 5,000”—because so much discussion takes place in Basecamp instead.

Armstrong reiterated Moore’s point about how Basecamp can help supervisors assess workloads and shift them depending on “who has a heinous week;” this is important, she said, for a small staff where everyone ends up doing a little bit of everything.

And because “every single action gets recorded,” Armstrong said, she can easily track who’s doing what they said they would, and who isn’t. This allows her to catch problems and deal with them early, rather than the week before a big event.

A few limitations

During the question-and-answer period, an attendee asked whether a project management system like this one makes it so the executive director is looking over staff members’ shoulders rather than trusting them to work autonomously and get things done.

Price and Armstrong said there are certain measures that can be taken to preserve autonomy and decrease that feeling of being micromanaged. For one thing, Price said, you can describe a task generally but leave unstated exactly how you will accomplish it. You can also discuss a task with someone but then wait to enter it in Basecamp until you’re ready to share it, Armstrong said. She also noted that in addition to what is entered into Basecamp for all project participants to see, staff members still maintain task lists that are outside of Basecamp and just for themselves.

But that’s not to say there aren’t any drawbacks.

For one thing, Walsh said, Basecamp gives dates for to-do items, but not specific times. One workaround, he added, is to mention a time in the description of the task.

It’s important, Moore said, not to try to evaluate design elements while working directly in Basecamp. The colors can skew, she explained, and large files take a long time to pull up. She prefers to find the PDFs within Basecamp but open them outside it.

All the panelists emphasized that while Basecamp helps keep things organized, it’s not the place where the real collaboration happens. There can be a tendency at times, Armstrong said, to “hide behind technology” and enter into discussions on Basecamp that really should be handled elsewhere. It’s also important, she said, to set ground rules regarding who’s in charge of a project, including who will enter it into Basecamp and monitor the ensuing back-and-forth.

When it comes to hiding behind technology, Walsh said, “Don’t be mean on Basecamp.” Potentially contentious discussions are one area where face-to-face interaction is still best, he noted.

No revenue, but priceless value

But limitations aside, and despite the fact that “It absolutely makes no dollars,” Armstrong is so positive about the value of Basecamp in “regaining sanity” that she has offered to speak with other executive directors and to the National Conference of Bar Presidents about it.

“It brings order to our changing world,” she said.