Business folks collaborating at a table

Everything is online. You could be working on a virtual team where the collaborators are located all around the globe. No longer are teams necessarily housed in the same building. This is an incredibly flexible proposition, but it also presents a unique set of challenges. How do you, for example, work together on the same document when you never see one another face to face?

Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario that any number of small businesses could face. Imagine that there is a team of ten to twelve individuals and they may come from a few different companies. They are working together to write a $100 million proposal that is 75 pages long. The proposal is due in three weeks. How can they collaborate effectively on this project?

Sending updated versions of the document via e-mail could be a nightmare, as it would be difficult to determine which version is the most recent. Instead, it is likely a much better option to invest in a great online document collaboration tool that allows for versioning, real-time feedback, comments, and “anywhere” access. Here are some solutions to consider.

1. Basecamp

When it comes to virtual team management, one of the first names that immediately comes to mind is Basecamp. This robust set of project management tools allows for file sharing, due date assignments, reusable templates, pervasive commenting and more. The document management might not quite be “real-time” enough for some applications, but under the context of the scenario described above, Basecamp could be a good fit. The cheapest $49/month “Plus plan” allows for unlimited users, 35 projects, and 15GB of storage.

2. Writeboard

Offered by 37 Signals, which happens to be the same firm behind Basecamp, Writeboard allows you to share your web-based documents with your team. Every edit is saved, there is strong versioning control, and you can easily compare the changes. Unlike the full Basecamp package, Writeboard is free and you can create as many online documents as you’d like. While you cannot import text from an external source, you can copy and paste your original text into a new Writeboard document. It should be noted that plain text exports can sometimes have forcibly-wrapped lines, which be quite annoying to correct manually.

3. Google Docs

Not surprisingly, Google Docs represents a major player in the realm of online collaboration. For starters, it is completely free to use and offers some versioning control, embedded comments, and fairly robust formatting. It should also be noted that a collaborator does not need a Google account to use it; he or she only needs the specialized “share” link. The trouble, though, is that when files are imported from or exported to MS Word, the formatting of the text may not transfer perfectly.

4. Zoho

In addition to a suite of other applications that include CRM and invoicing tools, Zoho also has Zoho Docs. You get online file storage, of course, as well as folders, tags, online chat, and online workspace. The free plan only allows for a single workspace, so for the context of the scenario described above, the Standard plan may be more appropriate. It costs $3 per user per month and allows for up to 10 workspaces, 1GB of storage, check-in/out control, revisioning, and group management.

5. EtherPad

The original Etherpad was acquired by Google, which subsequently shut it down. It has since been resurrected on many different sites around the Internet, like iEtherpad. You can also opt for the open source version to install on your own server. As it is not a commercial release, support is largely from the community, but Etherpad has been touted as a fairly powerful real-time document collaboration tool online.

6. Microsoft Office Live

What is Microsoft Office Live? It is essentially the online equivalent of the desktop version of the software suite. In this way, it will be immediately familiar to most business users. Unfortunately, all users working on the same online document will need the desktop software installed on their computers in order to gain the online collaborative functionality.

7. ThinkFree

In essence, the idea behind ThinkFree Online Office is to provide the same functions and user environments as Microsoft Office, but for free and online. Documents can be created, edited, and shared online, but the collaboration portion is better served with the ThinkFree Server Enterprise. In addition to online access, ThinkFree has Android, Windows Mobile, and iOS applications.

8. Dropbox

If you need to share larger files online in addition to collaborating on individual documents, Dropbox could be a useful tool. Files are synchronized across all computers sharing the same folder. However, if multiple parties are editing the same document at the same time, this could create conflicts. There is also virtually no versioning control and there is no built-in commenting system.

9. ContactOffice

The group version of ContactOffice allows you to share all types of data (including documents), providing you with the ability to set access rights for each type of user. Notifications can be sent automatically when creating or updating documents. Secured chats for real-time conversations, without any software downloads or installations, can aid in collaboration as well.

10. Live Documents

Live Documents claims to provide you with the best of both worlds: the features of Microsoft Office and the collaboration of Google Docs. Unlike the Office 2010 web apps, Live Documents is compatible with Microsoft Office 2003 formats and supports simultaneous co-editing functionality. Also, Microsoft Office documents are oftentimes “mangled” when imported into Google Docs; such is not the case with Live Documents. The fidelity of the formatting is maintained.

11. ProjectSpaces

A flexible set of online project management tools can be accessed with ProjectSpaces. Documents can be easily managed and organized, while the task list makes it easier to coordinate responsibilities. Shared online documents can be commented on and edited by multiple persons, while the shared calendar allows deadline and event tracking.

12. HyperOffice

Like many of the other options described in this list, HyperOffice caters more toward the business or corporate customer. Documents are securely stored and shared, getting automatically backed up and allowing for online collaboration with version control, audit trails, locking, commenting, and more. For a group to ten users, the monthly charge is $79.99 with $10 per additional user. Alternatively, you can pay annually at $767.90, representing a $191.98 savings over monthly payments.

13. Acrobat Workspaces

While Adobe Acrobat is perhaps best known for reading and writing PDF files, Acrobat Workspaces allows for the creation, storage and sharing of documents within teams. Adobe Buzzword is used for collaborating word processing and the administrator can set the roles and permissions for individual users on individual files.

Image credit: endopack / iStockphoto

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