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The New Breed of Team Applications: Which Are Right for You?

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As the growth of distributed teams continues to skyrocket, the need for online tools to coordinate teams is growing right along with it. In this article, Jeremy Wright looks at five key apps that will help your team to work as a collaborative unit, whether they're on different continents or in shared-wall cubicles.
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We’ve all observed how teams, departments, and companies have been changing over the last decade or so. Telecommuting is more common; the practice of hiring people who never even come onsite is growing. It should come as no surprise, then, that tools to help teams communicate "beyond email" are springing up like hippies at a Rolling Stones concert.

During the dotcom bubble, a number of products emerged that were supposed to help teams work more effectively. Most of these tools were too complex, too ineffectual, or just so far ahead of their time that they ultimately failed, for whatever reason. In addition, most companies simply weren’t ready to hand over the reins of control to an offsite team for something as core to the business as communication.

But times have changed. Between the rise of the telecommuter and the changes that Salesforce.com has made on the business world by making it okay to outsource critical data and services, the industry is ripe for tools and applications that make it easier and more effective for teams to communicate, manage themselves, and work together—whether they’re 2,000 miles away or just down the hall.

In this article we’ll examine the changing dynamics of teams, and the applications that meet the needs of these "new teams."

A Long, Hard Road

In the beginning, there was email. But everyone knew that email was an awful way to actually share documents. Sure, Word and Office docs, as well as comparable applications, came with basic change tracking, but merging those changes has always been an incredible hassle.

Then came document management systems, e-document systems, and other such means of trying to simply manage getting teams to work on the same files. The late 1990s introduced centralized project management portals, document sharing portals such as SharePoint, and other technologies that tried to allow team members to stay connected to the "mothership."

During the bubble, a number of projects rose up to try to connect people more easily. Some were IM-based, some were web-based. The problem with these applications was twofold:

  • Broadband wasn’t pervasive. It’s really difficult to work with document management, project management, or even calendaring without a fast connection to the Internet and to the server.
  • IT wanted control. Sharing any data—but particularly sensitive customer relationship management or financial data—was totally beyond what IT and executives were willing to risk in the 1990s.

Both of these barriers have been shattered in recent years. Broadband penetration is well above 50% (for businesses, more like 95%). And, according to Central Desktop’s CEO Isaac Garcia, Salesforce.com (and other applications like it) helped make sharing data acceptable and even valuable.

Since the bust, many applications have grown up that take advantage of these changes in attitude. They attempt to provide teams with a simple and effective way of tackling such common problems as document sharing, project management, communication (beyond email), and calendaring. Many of these apps are grouped in among so-called "Web 2.0" companies, but most of them prefer to think of themselves as simple enablers for overstressed teams.

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