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Work smarter, quicker and cheaper with online tools

By Lasa Information Systems Team

This article looks at how organisations can fight the economic downturn by using free or low cost web based tools to increase collaboration with others and save time and money.

The knowledgebase article “Online collaboration tools” describes the tools we used to work with a couple of organisations in America on an ICT project. However there are plenty of other examples. Read on to find out more about the benefits, precautions to take, and variety of tools available to support this way of working.

The Benefits

By using online ICT tools, organisations can save money in several ways and have the added benefit of working “greener”. They also offer several other advantages. For example:

  • Even very small organisations can have extensive reach without the need for expensive ICT infrastructure
  • Staff can work from virtually anywhere with a broadband connection, and at any time, potentially saving on office costs
  • Secure online file storage accessible from anywhere
  • Drastic reduction in the amount of email traffic because everything is held in one place
  • Better file management since files are stored and can be worked on centrally - multiple versions of the same file are not scattered amongst all the people working on the file (documents, spreadsheet, presentation etc.).
  • Several users can work on a document simultaneously
  • Calendars / diaries can be shared easily
  • Projects can potentially be completed far more quickly if there is a central online space for collaboration to take place – time is money so less time means less money!
  • “Virtual” meetings reduce travel costs, and with video capability available in many applications “seeing” the person  you are talking to is possible
  • Reduced call costs using online teleconferencing
  • Instant messaging to allow free, internet based real time chat
  • Platform independence – because tools are accessed through a web browser they will usually work on a PC or Apple Mac. Some applications either currently support mobile devices like mobile phones and Blackberry’s or will include support for these in the near future
  • “Tagging” to allow easy sharing of useful online resources with your colleagues

With users requiring little more technology than computers or mobile devices and a broadband connection, people can be collaborating quickly and efficiently in no time.

The plethora of tools available means the trick is to choose the right tool or tools for what you want to achieve, and to pick tools that are appropriate to the skill level of the people who will need to use them.


Whilst online tools have many benefits, they are not risk free so it’s sensible to take a few precautions including:

  • Reading the terms and conditions! This can be particularly important where privacy and intellectual property are concerned. Many of the free services make no guarantees that the service will be available 100% or the time.
  • Choosing a well established product – you don’t want to find the company goes belly up taking all your data with it.
  • Making sure the service provider has robust back up arrangements or better still:
  • Ensure it’s possible to get your information and data out so you can create a back up yourself or import into another tool if need be. This may involve additional expense depending on the application

The knowledgebase articles Web Based Services - Tales of the Unexpected and Data Protection and Web Based Applications discuss these issues in more detail.

The Tools

So what kinds of tool are out there? From simple document and file sharing, to cheap teleconferencing right up to sophisticated, integrated tools for managing enterprise scale projects, there is something that will help get the job done.

Different tools take slightly different approaches but there are enough to choose from that you can probably find one that works best for your situation.

Pricing ranges from free, to a sliding scale of fees depending on the tool, and factors like amount of storage space provided, functionality required, number of projects or participants etc.

The examples given in this article are not meant to provide a recommendation or exhaustive list, merely to give a flavour of what’s available. The article focuses on newer, more feature-rich “Web 2.0” tools but good old fashioned email mailing lists or discussion forums might be enough for what you need to achieve. These are discussed elsewhere on the knowledgebase.

Document Sharing and Online File Storage

If you just want a lightweight tool to help you work with others on a document, tools like Google Docs or Zoho Docs can work really well. Both allow users to upload and collaboratively work on files including documents, spreadsheets, and presentations in real time. You can control who has access to your files and whether they are allowed to edit or simply view. The interfaces are designed to be familiar to software people are already used to using.

Zoho and Google make sharing and working on documents free, easy and convenient.  There’s also no more waiting for colleagues to email their document changes to you, as both Zoho and Google Docs allow two or more users to work on the same document simultaneously.

LifeHacker has a useful article on backing up your Google Apps Data. And there are various options for backing up your Zoho files.

Both Google and Zoho provide a suite of other tools that allow collaboration beyond simple file sharing and storage.

Documentation Building

If you need to collaborate on something more than a simple document, for example if you need to document a project’s development, or document procedures a wiki might be a better tool. The Techsoup article Exploring the world of Wikis covers this in more detail. The Idealware article Choosing Wiki Software and related articles published on the knowledgebase provide futher pointers.

Depending on the software, there will usually be a way to back up the database containing the wiki content.

Online calendars

Online calendars (like Google Calendar) provide a free, secure and easy way to share calendars with remote staff or people who work from home.


Tagging or “social bookmarking” allows users to add their own labels when bookmarking a favourite website.  Using services like delicious is a free and quick way to organise and share web links amongst colleagues. Common Craft have created a useful short video on YouTube to explain how tagging works.

Web Conferencing

Web conferencing allows people to meet online rather than having to travel to a specific location. Although there may be an initial outlay (monthly or annual flat fee), if it cuts down on the number of journeys for even just a few people, these costs are soon recouped.

Examples include:

  • DimdimOpen source web conferencing free for up to 20 users. Paid for pro and enterprise versions also available. Web based, no download required. Desktop sharing (so users can see everything you can). Chat, audio conferencing and more.
  • Yugma – Has features including teleconferencing, desktop sharing , presentation tools and more. The free version allows desktop sharing with up to 20 attendees.
  • GoToMeeting – Similar features to Yugma, integration with applications including Outlook, Lotus Notes and MSN Messenger
  • WebEx – Includes a pay per use version as well as similar features to Yugma and GoToMeeting.

All three examples allow conferences to be recorded and listened to later (e.g. by people who were unable to attend). And you may also be able to create / download transcripts and notes of the meeting.

Managing Projects

For managing projects there are various dedicated tools many of which combine several elements to provide sophisticated online collaboration spaces. Common features include files sharing, time tracking and billing, task management, milestones, and some kind of discussion / comment or other feedback mechanism. Email alerts and RSS are also pretty standard.

Examples include:

  • Huddle “combines online collaboration, online project management and document sharing using social networking principles”. A basic account is free and charities can get an upgraded account for £6 through CTX.
  • Basecamp – There’s a free 30 day trial otherwise the basic version (no time tracking and less security) aimed at small groups is available for a modest monthly fee.
  • Goplan – Free version currently available for up to 2 simultaneous projects and 4 users.
  • Liquid Planner – Free version for US based non profits and educational institutions
  • Central Desktop – includes web and audio conferencing

There are several articles looking at various project management tools on the Idealware website, including Online Project Management Software in the Real World which look at some of the above tools in more depth.

Getting all your data out of this type of application can be more difficult to achieve “out of the box”, so if this is important to you make sure it’s possible with the tool you choose. Several of the tools including Huddle and Basecamp allow you to export at least some of your data as XML. Some tools also provide an API (Application Program Interface) that allows you to interact with the tool from other applications that you use (e.g. Facebook, or develop.


The right tool or set of tools can be used to help organisations work together on any project or simply work together more easily. We might need to change the way we work a bit, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re still unsure why not just have a go with something small scale and see how you get on?

The tools section of the I-See-T website has more useful information and examples.

If you already have a favourite tool please let us know by adding a comment to this article.

Whether you’re new to the tools or have been using them for ages, you can also share your experiences in the knowledgebase forums.


About the author

Lasa Information Systems Team
Lasa's Information Systems Team provides a range of services to third sector organisations including ICT Health Checks and consulting on the best application of technology in your organisation. Lasa IST maintains the knowledgebase. Follow us on Twitter @LasaICT


API, Broadband, Browser, Database, ICT, Internet, MAC, Mobile, RSS, Social Bookmarking, Software, Spreadsheet, Storage, Tagging, Teleconferencing, Web Browser, Website, Wiki, XML

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Published: 12th March 2009

Copyright © 2009 Lasa Information Systems Team

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