Traditional collaboration tools work well for teams working in offices or home offices with always-on, properly configured internet connections. For consultants, or ad-hoc teams forming in workshops or training events, these tools often prove to be unreachable, inaccessible through firewalls and security policies, or not configurable for a quick ad-hoc but coordinated activities.
Most companies have policies, tools, and workflows configured for effective collaboration. File sharing, task management, version control, messaging applications enable team members to collaborate on common artifacts, and to achieve a set of common goals in an organized manner. These tools however rarely provide efficient workspaces and processes for consultants spending most of their time on-site, in their customers' offices, meeting rooms, hotels, and on the road. As I frequently have to participate in similar activities, I have to accommodate myself to this sometimes connected, typically restricted, frequently offline network environment. Web-based tools are not reachable, desktop clients typically can't connect through the restricted environments. If the meeting or workshop requires prototype building, or documentation (like requirements gathering) involving multiple team members, we have to establish an environment where we can share documents, tasks, and status reports. The collaboration is typically restricted to Blackberry emails, and file transfers using USB memory devices. This is extremely inconvenient and frustrating, and I believe that USB access to local PCs will be very restricted in the nery future everywhere - this is just an oversight in a typical Windows environment that makes our lives easier.
I've recently came across the new Virtual Office product from Groove Networks. I've tried some previous Groove products from them before, but this is the first version that I find very complete and totally focused. As I had to participate in a kind of "agile development" prototyping, requirements gathering, and planning workshop at a customer's site with my small team, I had the perfect opportunity to test the trial edition of the software. To summarize the results, it was a spectacular success.
This is the official description of the product from Groove Networks:
No compromise between speed and security Any user can set up and deploy a Groove workspace in seconds without the effort of setting up secure servers or VPNs. Bringing a team together is fast, simple and secure. ...
Work together securely over the Internet as if you and your team are in the same physical location. Groove Virtual Office is everything your team needs to share information, manage projects, conduct meetings and get work done. ...
True mobility Work when you want, not just when you can find an Internet connection. Groove Virtual Office lets you take your office with you everywhere you go. When you reconnect to the network, Groove automatically synchronizes all your changes.
I've evaluated the Project Edition, and used the following features during the 3-day project:
Quick project workspace creation: I was able to quickly create a workspace with the features I wanted to utilize for the project. Then I invited the other team members to the workspace.
Instant messaging: even though I had no access to email, and none of the usual IM tools (Yahoo, MSN) worked through the restricted internet access, Groove's Local Network/P2P based chat features worked seamlessly, saving us from the trouble of spelling out long URLs, phone numbers, etc. to each other.
File sharing: while the other teams ran around with USB memory modules to exchange files, code, data, etc. , we had a convenient file share, and we did not have to work around the limitations of a simple SMB share on Windows. The team members were notified about the changes of the file share, and their client automatically downloaded the changes to the local mirror.
Task management: with 6 team members, it was rather difficult not to forget about a task or two, fortunately the tool allowed us to track the tasks and their status. I was able to add tasks locally, and then it was synched to the desktop clients.
Meeting notes: I was able to take meeting notes offline, and others gained access through it when I connected the PC to the local network.
Overall the tool proved to be a success. Every team member immediately liked it, and because of the streamlined interface, it was easy to navigate between the features. I had a good laugh when I've heard some of the other teams complaining about the inability to transfer files in an effective way - maybe I should've clued them in on the tool, but then again, it was a competitive situation :-). When the workshop ended, it was easy to pull together the artifacts we needed to archive - it was already properly distributed through the file share. However, I had just a few minutes before we had to return the PCs, and I did not find an obvious way to archive the whole workspace in a convenient way. Later on I've found it in the Workspaces menu, but I was totally shocked when the workspace, including all the artifacts, was automatically downloaded to my notebook. These are some of the issues I've found with the product:
The chat tool is not as effective as some of the other IM tools, for example I did not found an easy way to see the previous messages from a particular contact.
The notifications in the tray are not apparent to some users, so a more visible notification scheme should be used.
When we tried to publish a large (80 MB) file in the share, it did not seem to work, and there was no obvious feedback about what is the status of the transfer.
I'd certainly like to use a product like this on future consulting jobs. It seems like the Professional Edition would be the suitable choice, but at 179$ per client it could be a tough sell for my management. I'd also have to find a way to integrate this product into our fantastic web-based complete project collaboration tool. Ideally I should be able to sync the files into our online project repository; I guess the rest of the artifacts have less of an importance.