With cloud computing continuing its reach into areas once dominated by desktop applications, it's a great time to consider how your small business could benefit from online collaboration tools for producing great documents. Whether it's a proposal, press release, manual, or other type of communication or documentation, there are some great and relatively easy to use tools out there to help your team prepare it.
We've looked at the bigger picture in team collaboration tools before, including everything from private group messaging to shared contacts to project management. We've also looked at how to collaboratively create presentations using online tools as well. But if you need to get a group together specifically to build a document, you'll want to know what types of options are available. Happily, the cost of many of these tools is downright cheap compared to desktop alternatives, or even free.
Wiki software allows multiple users to collaborate on interlinked web documents relatively easily using a WYSIWYG editor or a lightweight markup language. The most famous example is Wikipedia, a user-editable knowledge base that has quickly grown into the world's largest encyclopedia since its founding in 2001.
Wikis are an excellent choice for creating complex documentation, since pages and topics can be very easily linked together to make a navigable document structure. Typically, built-in search functionality allows needed information to be found quickly from within the archives. Among the other benefits of a wiki are version histories, in which copies of previous edits to a particular page are saved in case anything needs to be rolled back or recovered. Some systems allow the creation of fine sets of permission structures to ensure that only those who are allowed to view and/or edit certain sections are able to do so.
Beyond documentation, wikis can also often be a good choice for collaborating on single standalone documents, particularly if those documents need to live online. However, some wiki systems have export features as well that allow you to convert an online wiki page into a PDF, text file or other portable document format.
There are a number of options for using a wiki in your organization, from hosting free and open source software packages on your own servers to low cost hosted wikis and fully-supported solutions scalable from small business all the way up to the enterprise. Have a look at MediaWiki for a self-hosted solution (this is the software that powers Wikipedia), PBWorks for a hosted solution, and Socialtext for a supported solution that can scale as your company grows. For many more options, check out an excellent comparison chart of wiki software and the WikiMatrix wiki comparison site.
Collaborative Document Editors
If your needs are simpler than extensive documentation or information gathering and you just need a way to collaborate on essentially standalone documents, you might consider one of the many excellent collaborative online document editors out there. Perhaps the most famous among them is Google Documents. Here you can make use of a rather robust WYSIWYG visual editor to prepare documents that are shareable in either view or edit levels with whoever needs to have access. With the recent addition of a shared folders feature, it's even easier to manage collaboration and access among one or several sets of team members.
Google's not the only game in town, however, and it's worth exploring alternative options including the also free Zoho Writer, the online word processing component of Zoho Applications, a full-featured collaboration suite that even features full integration with Google Docs for a multi-tiered open approach to online collaboration tools.
Other notable options worth checking out in the online document preparation category include Adobe's Buzzword and 37 Signals' Writeboard, which uses a wiki-like syntax but is primarily geared towards creating standalone documents. If your business is already operating in the Microsoft Office realm, it's also worth looking at Office Live Workspace which offers a check-out/check-in approach to document collaboration for groups, although your team would actually use the corresponding desktop apps to view and edit documents. The next version, Microsoft Office 2010, will also add a native web apps component to the office suite and should be worth checking out when it launches next year.
If your small business already works in the realm of cutting edge technology, or if your company culture includes cultivating an adventurous spirit, it's definitely worth giving this innovative new communication and document-creation tool a try. Google Wave is part e-mail, part wiki, part instant messaging and part social networking -- it offers an unprecedented opportunity to collaborate with peers in real-time, where edits and additions can be seen as they're made.
Google Wave provides basic document formatting features like headlines, font sizes and styles, alignment, etc. Replies can be threaded and nested many levels deep, with the entire progress of each Wave able to be played back in sequential order to see how the document unfolded. You also have powerful ways to bring in and display outside information into a Wave with extensions dubbed gadgets and robots. Since anyone can create these extensions, not only is there a robust community already making useful apps, but your business could potentially create its own custom extensions if and when needed as well.
It's certainly still the early days for Google Wave, and because it's in private beta it may prove difficult to get your entire group access to the tool. But it's an incredibly promising medium that forward-thinking companies may want to experiment with. Even if it only provides utility in the drafting and brainstorming stage for a completed documented that is eventually finalized using other tools, Google Wave is an impressive and unique method for team collaboration on information in real-time.
Image courtesy of iStockphoto, Francisblack