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Best Practice Functionality for Online Collaboration Tools



The current globalization trend in the workforce is causing companies to look for new tools that will allow their decentralized employees to collaborate on projects via the Internet in more efficient ways. Online collaboration tools seek to transition away from traditional office practices and use the Internet as a new type of workspace that enables the storage and access of data in a collaborative way[1]. It enables teams to work better together in completing projects. Because companies are giving employees the option of working from decentralized locations (home, satellite offices or coffee shops) the belief is that the introduction of an online collaboration tool will improve the ability of employees to work on deliverables and provide feedback regardless of their location or time zone.


As we began to research and compare the different functionality offered by collaboration tools, our desire was to identify functionality that could be leveraged by both co-located and distributed team members.  We wanted to identify functionality that would allow for effective collaboration, while still enabling the individual team members to perform autonomous research on project deliverables.  Based on this, we have identified the following six types of functionality that we believe should be included in any collaboration tool in order to maximize collaboration results:


Allow team members to update project deliverables at the same time

Having a central online location to store project documents can help the project team avoid the problem of trying to identify which team member has the “master version” of the file.  Allowing team members to comment and edit a single document, can be a solution to this issue.  The simultaneous editing of a document “allows for [a] much more flexible and dynamic editing period[2]” and thus can allow the project team to meet their necessary deadlines by shortening time of completion.   


Allowing multiple team members the opportunity to edit a single document, simultaneously, without requiring them to “Check-Out/Check-In” the document, also enables each user to update the document “as soon as edits are suggested[2]” as opposed to waiting for someone to finish with their changes, exit the file, and notify the other team members the file is available for editing.  For larger distributed teams in different time zones, the “Check-Out/Check-In” process could extend the timeframe that a team has to complete a project.  

By giving each team member the opportunity to actively update documents “as soon as edits[2]” are suggested rather than waiting for someone to “get out” of the file, or for someone to aggregate all the changes received greatly increase the pace of the team collaboration.


Allow access to previous document versions

For teams that are either co-located or distributed, having a “version control [system] is central [in] coordinating[3]” the overall work of project. Versioning capabilities lets one team member work on a copy of the document and then allows that team member to release their changes...when ready[3]. This allows the team to work on their own copies of the same document simultaneously without affecting changes made by other team members.  When a team member is ready to “commit their changes back to the project[3]” it is automatically checked for conflicts.  “If any conflict...arise between two contributors changes...[it is] automatically flagged[3]” as an issue.  When multiple members of the team are working on the same document at the same time, the version control ensures that if the document is being corrupted, not all of the teams project work is lost.

Having version control of project documents, allows the team members to manually manage the conflicts identified by viewing previous versions of the documents created. The project team will be able to access previous versions of their work to recover from any error and not cause a delay to the project.  The history contained in the previous versions will allow the project team to understand the work completed previously and will allow the project team to build on that work as opposed to starting the entire project over again from the beginning.


Allow for adequate storage space of project deliverables

With teams consistently saving, editing and versioning project documents, the collaboration tool can very quickly exceed any storage space allocated by an organization's IT department.  Because of this concern, a collaboration tool must allow team members to store vast amounts of data and projects files while still enabling sharing between project team members.  The storage capacity of the tool chosen is important in terms of both space and scalability[4].


One option to resolve storage issues is to select a tool that has “cloud storage” capabilities.  Allowing for a collaboration tool allows “cloud storage” enables any team member to access collaboration documents remotely on any device.  Additionally, using cloud computing allows the organization not “to worry about running out of space[5]” and needing “to plan months ahead to [purchase] additional storage[5].”  


By implementing a cloud storage option for collaboration, the organization experiences two main benefits:

  • Continuous data access - Project team members always have access the project data regardless of where they are located and what device they use to access the collaboration tools, as they have an Internet connection.    

  • Scalability - Any future hardware scalability costs are shifted to the cloud computing company.


Enable collaboration on multiple mobile devices

With mobile now becoming the “rule rather than the exception[6]” online collaboration tools must follow suit. In only three years, the use of mobile apps has “surpassed desktop and mobile web consumption[6].” Tablet sales as well will continue to soar and users will want to share and access content from different devices. It is vital that tools keep up with the demand and offer more powerful mobile versions instead of operating mainly as “second-tier clients of cloud-based applications[6].”


As we move more and more to our mobile devices to work and communicate, the users experience will be the main driver around how collaboration apps will be designed[7].  The theory is that users will be more efficient working on their phones rather than a PC because phones are easier to use and more globally available with nearly 3 billion being used throughout the world[7].

Since everything is moving to mobile, more testing will need to be done on how we can efficiently use collaborative tools on smart phones.  IT must continue to “accumulate knowledge” of how users “accomplish business tasks” using mobile technology[7].


Ensure project deliverables remain secure

When working collaboratively and sharing files online there is an inherent risk that control over that information could be lost. Unauthorized access poses a huge concern to many companies because much of the information being shared contains confidential information[8]. Balancing the needs of data security with the needs of users to access the data at any time and from any device will be a daunting challenge for cloud-based online collaboration applications. After all, “the real value of collaboration almost always involves file sharing, since this is where the most valuable information resides[8].

The threat can be greatly reduced by a robust and up-to-date identity management system as well as a training plan that covers proper “collaboration security measures[9].” Authentication and authorization technology will need to improve and grow to meet the future needs of online collaboration tools, and take advantage of an “increasingly borderless world” where users have multiple “access personas” and require access across multiple devices[9].


Enable project team members to know project workflow status

Effective collaboration tools increase efficiency, while virtually eliminating the communication obstructions of traditional business practices.  In order to collaborate effectively, it is imperative that tasks and user roles are easily defined.  Allowing for a predefined list of roles and tasks enables the project team to easily review the status of the project work by:

  • Tracking overdue, in progress, or completed tasks

  • Using alerts/alarms and email notifications

  • Searching for a workflow slip to review all activity

  • Using the workflow map to analyze bottlenecks and potential delays

  • Automating task allocation[10]


Additionally, an effective collaborative workflow would enable support for:

  • A work breakdown structure (WBS): a goal-oriented project/task framework for deliverables.

  • Security: a role-based access control (RBAC) to provide security and confidentiality, while enabling team members to access specific tasks, documents and calendar items. RBAC also allows collaborating professionals to work across organizational boundaries, reducing information silos.

  • Social tools that enable linking of collaboration and communication activities to specific elements of the WBS, including communication (online chat, instant messages, and alerts), collaboration (structured document management including content indexing), and synchronization (such as calendaring tools).

  • Mobility: access from any mobile browser without requiring installation of an application  (Also see “Enable collaboration on multiple mobile devices”)[11]



Choosing a tool which possesses all these characteristics should enable collaborative teams to maximize their project output and minimize the efforts to involve in overcoming the multiple challenges of working with other individuals. However, no tool available at this time is THE answer to all those complex challenges of collaboration; and probably will never be because of the human factor and constantly evolving technology.


The Project

 While working on this project, the team leveraged Google Docs as its editor of choice.  When deciding on the steps to create this document we established the following process (laid out below and inspired by the process provided by Dr. Mittleman):


  1. The team conducted a brainstorming session to identify the layout of the document, the evaluation criteria, and to review the proposed feature list.  During this session we identified a high level outline of this document.
  2. From the contents of the brainstorming session we identified the six pieces of criteria that we included in this document.
  3. We then, broke into two teams.  The two teams (individually) were tasked with conducting their own initial research and writing the section assigned to them.
    • This writing occurs in our online collaborative document editor (Google Docs).  
  4. At the end of step 3, the teams conducted a review of the other teams sections, then provided feedback to the original authors.
  5. Once that review was completed, the original authors took the feedback and updated their sections based on the comments received.  
  6. Once the comments incorporated, the team conducted a structured walk through of the document to ensure there weren't additional comments/questions.
  7. The assigned final editor conducted a final review/edit of the document to ensure that it met the necessary requirements.





  1.  Strickland, J. (2008, April 29). HowStuffWorks "Is online collaboration the future of how companies do business?". HowStuffWorks. Retrieved May 10, 2014, from http://money.howstuffworks.com/online-collaboration.htm
  2. McNulty, C. (2014, January 27). New Patterns of Collaboration in SharePoint. Retrieved May 10, 2014, from http://www.cmswire.com/cms/social-business/new-patterns-of-collaboration-in-sharepoint-023909.php

  3. Yeates, S. (2013, May 9). OSS Watch provides unbiased advice and guidance on the use, development, and licensing of free software, open source software, and open source hardware. What is version control? Why is it important for due diligence?. Retrieved May 10, 2014, from http://oss-watch.ac.uk/resources/versioncontrol


  1. Ghering, C., Devine, S., Berryman, F., Padmanabhan, R., & Fernando, D. (July 2013). Collaborative Tools Analysis and Evaluation. Retrieved May 12, 2014 from https://itservices.msu.edu/dept/cont-collab/assets/collaborative-tools-report.pdf


  1. Porter-Roth, Bud. (2011, October 12). Cloud Collaboration – What are the Benefits? Or, Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? Retrieved May 10, 2014, from http://www.aiim.org/community/blogs/expert/cloud-collaboration-e28093-what-are-the-benefits-or-why-buy-the-cow-when-you-can-get-the-milk-for-free


  1. Five hot collaboration trends. (n.d.). Retrieved May 14, 2014, from http://gigaom.com/2012/04/01/five-hot-collaboration-trends/


  1. Nexus, A Dimension Data Company. (n.d.). Retrieved May 14, 2014, from http://www.nexusis.com/blog/future-trends-for-collaboration-technologies


  1. 5 Security Essentials for Collaboration in the Enterprise. (n.d.). Accellion.com. Retrieved May 15, 2014, fromhttp://www.accellion.com/sites/default/files


  1. Collaboration Security - Cisco on Cisco. (n.d.). Retrieved May 15, 2014, from http://www.cisco.com/web/about/ciscoitatwork/collaboration/collaboration_security.html


  1. Workflow. Retrieved May 15, 2014 from US Objective: http://us.objective.com/products/enterprise-content-management/workflow/features

  2. Collaborative Workflow: Social Software on a Mission.  Retrieved May 15, 2014 from http://esj.com/Articles/2012/05/28/Collaborative-Workflows.aspx?Page=4


The Project Members

Team Stu is Orlande Bidaux, Nickolas Cleveland, Wynn Daniels, and Brian D. Stewart



Comments (1)

Danny Mittleman said

at 4:33 pm on Jun 14, 2014

Well done. Grade of A.

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