Most of the people I work for, I never see. In fact, some of the people I work for, I've never really even spoken to. How is this possible? We work together in cyberspace.
Sure, I miss the frequent-flyer miles, but on the Internet I can hash out ideas with an editor in the UK, correspond with an author in Boston, kibitz with a lab researcher in Silicon Valley. Simultaneously, we can view test results, discuss their importance, and make quick decisions.
Of course, networked teams in big companies do this all the time. But there are advantages to bypassing your company's local area network (LAN) and working together on the Internet, the biggest network of all. The new generation of Internet "collaboration" software programs enables you to review product specs online with vendors who don't have access to your company's LAN, or to fine-tune a sales presentation from your hotel room without having to dial into the network. Best of all, you can avoid the timesink of trying to get the senior vice president of MIS to let you put the software on the LAN. Just upload it to the Internet and get to work.
Scheduling Need: Set up a meeting with people who aren't on your company's LAN.
Power Tool: Sidekick 97 ($50)
Before you collaborate, you've got to coordinate. Trouble is, when your customers are spread across time zones, scheduling a meeting through email can quickly dissolve into online Ping-Pong. Starfish Software's Sidekick 97 smoothes over the scheduling snafus.
From within the program you pick a meeting time, select the people who should attend, and email invitations. Sidekick users who receive meeting missives can quickly accept, decline, or request a new time, and then automatically send the message back. (Even if your invitees don't use Sidekick, they can still accept or decline.) As people respond, Sidekick generates a list of attendees for the virtual meeting.
Because it's designed to run solely on the Net, Sidekick can't share calendar and contact information over your company's network. But it does give people an efficient way to stay close to the customer. Adding an appointment is as easy as clicking on a client's name and dragging it over to the appropriate day and time. Click on the name later, and up pops the client's phone number.
Coordinates: Starfish Software Inc., http://www.starfishsoftware.com
Scheduling Need: Stay in sync with your teammates.
Power Tool: GoldMine 3.2 ($180)
Your work centers on people, not things. GoldMine 3.2 ties people together. Better yet, this latest release works smoothly with the online world.
This multifaceted contact manager includes built-in email for trading memos with other GoldMiners on your company's network. It can also be set up to log incoming and outgoing emails, providing a kind of electronic cover-your-ass function. Another benefit: it gives you pertinent information on every contact, ready at your fingertips for any meeting. So when someone suggests firing off an email to the head of marketing, you can send it while the meeting is still in progress.
Niftiest of all, one of GoldMine's calendar views is a planner that synchronizes with other GoldMiners' calendars. Select your teammates for a meeting, and the networked copy of the program highlights (in colored blocks) who's busy and who's free. The downside: GoldMine's steep learning curve. Its arcane interface and menus make finding some of the program's features difficult. You'll need the manual for this one. Also, to take full advantage of GoldMine, you need to set up a central copy on your company's server.
Coordinates: GoldMine Software Corp., http://www.goldminesw.com
Scheduling Need: Share the flow of information among team members.
Power Tool: ECCO Pro 4.01 ($139)
If you're in an infocentric business where knowledge counts more than bodies, ECCO Pro is the way to go. Its strength lies in its expandable outlines for storing information in folders, which in turn are linked to a detailed electronic Rolodex and scheduler. As your team works through a project, you can assign priority levels to different tasks and automatically link those tasks to the right person's contact information.
ECCO's "shooter" feature keeps information like email addresses current. At the click of an icon, the shooter grabs highlighted data in ECCO and puts it into a spreadsheet or memo that you're working on elsewhere. On the minus side, although ECCO Pro lets you synchronize calendars remotely when you're out of the office, that maneuver requires some practice.
Coordinates: NetManage Inc., http://www.netmanage.com
Meet Me In Cyberspace
Before you can work together online, you've got to build a virtual conference room where everyone can be together online. Your tools? Software programs that let you swap messages, trade sketches, edit live documents together, talk, even see one another. Each of the packages below creates a different venue for an online meeting.
Team Need: Edit documents and spreadsheets in real time.
Power Tool: Microsoft NetMeeting 2.0 (free)
There's no such a thing as a free lunch, but you can avoid picking up the tab for the next business meeting by downloading NetMeeting from Microsoft's Web site.
To get started, register your Net address on a NetMeeting server. When it's time to hook up for a tete-a-tete, you and your meeting partner go online and log onto the server. From there, use the chat utility to send rapid-fire messages. There's also a telephony function that enables you to talk with each other (you supply the microphone and speakers for the PC). The sound quality may vary, depending on your Internet connection and the amount of traffic on the Net, but with text chat and an accompanying electronic whiteboard, you'll have more than enough tools to get all of your points across.
NetMeeting's best feature is its cooperative editing functions. It lets you share standard Windows applications such as Excel and Word, so you can edit and exchange files with others — even if they don't have Excel or Word installed on their computers. Application sharing makes putting updated numbers on a spreadsheet a one-step process. To prevent online anarchy, you can keep others from making changes on a project proposal. Or you can let them edit the document at will. Those working with customers who are on various platforms will be stumped, though: NetMeeting is for Windows 95 and Windows NT users only. Nevertheless, its full-range of functions, including a videoconferencing feature, make it a good place to start experimenting with application sharing.
Coordinates: Microsoft, http://www.microsoft.com
Team Need: Work together across platforms.
Power Tool: Netscape Conference ($59 in stores; free from Internet service providers)
Sometimes it's best to simplify. Conference, part of Netscape's Communicator package, is easy to set up and easy to use.
To get connected, enter the other person's email address and set the software's text-chat feature so it opens automatically when your work partner calls. The chatting feature is pretty much hassle-free. If your partner misses the meeting, use Conference's Internet phone feature to email a voice message.
Trading on its Web prowess, Conference has a nifty feature for serious cybercruisers. Suppose you want to take a customer to several competitors' Web sites to assess their online presence. With Conference, you can take control of the customer's browser and conduct a tour through cyberspace.
A couple of shortcomings, however, limit Conference's utility. While you can cut and paste documents onto a digital whiteboard, you can't share applications. Conference is also limited to two users in its current version. On the upside, it reaches across a full range of platforms: Macintosh, Windows, and Unix. This makes Conference an obvious choice for people who work with others using different file formats.
Coordinates: Netscape Communications, http://www.netscape.com
Team Need: Work together on a digital whiteboard and discuss the results through your computer.
Power Tool: VocalTec's Internet Conference Professional 2.1 ($150)
VocalTec's Internet Conference Professional (IC Pro) is the Power Tool of choice for people who work on visually oriented projects, such as reviewing the blueprint of a new toy being manufactured overseas. The Internet phone let's you place an international call, discuss last-minute design changes, and rough them out on the software's whiteboard. (Memo to your company controller: computer-to-computer Internet phone calls eliminate long-distance charges.)
Conference Professional offers the clearest Internet phone service of any I've tested — about the same as a conference speakerphone. It also accommodates more than two callers at once, so you can get everyone's feedback in real time instead of laboring through an email poll. There is, of course, a catch: a caller must connect to one of several IC Pro servers, create a private "conference room," and then invite others who've already been apprised of the conference room's name. It sounds complicated, but the whole process is pretty painless.
This is by far the fastest tool I've tested for editing reports and updating spreadsheets over standard phone lines. Delete a sentence in a marketing plan, and the edit appears on other people's computer screens almost instantaneously. There are even special icons for quickly inserting Microsoft Office documents onto the program's whiteboard. There is one problem, though: to help with the online editing, you must use the same application as everyone else.
Bottom line: if you don't mind setting up meetings on a server, VocalTec's package can turbocharge online teamwork.
Coordinates: VocalTec Communications, http://www.vocaltec.com
Team Need: Build trust and camaraderie among virtual teammates.
Power Tool: CU-SeeMe 3.0 ($99)
When face-to-face meetings are desirable but not easily doable, videoconferencing is the next best thing, enabling you to gauge people's reactions to proposals or assess the demeanor of team members who are on a deadline. White Pine Software's
CU-SeeMe, the pioneer in Internet-based videoconferencing and a near de facto standard, has recently added functions similar to those found in Netscape's Conference, making it an improved tool for cooperative online work.
Want to see how people are reacting to your new marketing plan? CU-SeeMe can put up to 12 video windows on a computer screen at one time. Be forewarned, though: the more people you put up on the screen, the slower and more degraded the pictures become.
CU-SeeMe now has a much-improved file transfer option, plus whiteboarding features and text-based chatting. It lacks the capacity to share entire documents, but with its added videoconferencing features, such as the ability to organize screen shots within the whiteboard window, CU-SeeMe will help your virtual team see eye to eye.
To get the full picture, you'll need the Color QuickCam 2 from Connectix Corp. The golf-ball-shaped camera ($299) plugs into the parallel and keyboard ports on a Windows computer and delivers motion video in a quarter-screen (160 by 120 pixels) or half-screen (320 by 240 pixel) size. The picture quality? It pretty much depends on the power and speed of your Internet connection.
Coordinates: White Pine Software, http://www.wpine.com ; Connectix Corp., http://www.connectix.com
Team Need: Have a face-to-face meeting with your teammates when you're a hemisphere away from them.
Power Tool: Tecra 750CDT ($6799)
Even though you're on the road, you can still have face-to-face meetings with staffers back at the office. All you need is a notebook computer with built-in videoconferencing. Although some specialized notebooks come with videoconferencing capability, most sacrifice computing performance for the gee-whiz videophone technology. One that doesn't is the Toshiba Tecra 750CDT.
The Tecra is a high-end machine for the high-tech traveler who needs everything. The 13.3-inch screen rivals some desktop monitors, and the computer includes a 20X CD-ROM drive (swappable with floppy drive), a built-in 33.6 Kbps modem, and a lithium-ion battery that stays juiced for nearly three hours.
The videcon-ferencing package is gravy. It includes a tiny video camera and Intel's business conferencing software with Intel ProShare for videoconferencing over the Net or over standard phone lines. The picture quality is far clearer than most Net-based videophones. Equipped with Microsoft NetMeeting 2.0, the Tecra enables you to swap ideas on a digital whiteboard and make snapshots of your jottings.
There's just one downside: the laptop weighs nearly eight pounds. But if you can afford it, you can also afford a personal trainer to help build those shoulder muscles.
Coordinates: Toshiba America Information Systems Inc., http://www.computers.toshiba.com
John R. Quain (email@example.com), a contributing editor at Fast Company, appears regularly on the CBS News Program "Up to the Minute."