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Summary:

Collaboration — both with staff on the inside and advisers from the outside — is a vital part of any successful organization. Given that so much of our communication is done electronically, much of our collaboration is, too. But good luck finding a truly effective set of electronic collaboration tools.

It’s a new year and like many companies, we here at Panorama Capital are trying to figure out how to better use our time and resources. One key area of interest for us is to increase our collaboration with our networks of advisers. Like most venture capital shops, we have formalized advisory boards that help us conduct due diligence on technology and markets. In addition to meeting with these advisers in person on a regular basis, we communicate with them electronically using mailing lists. And while we find mailing lists useful for disseminating information, as a collaboration tool we find them inadequate.

We use Google Groups as a listserv to archive our mailing list threads, but that really doesn’t provide a good collaboration environment. One common complaint we hear is that searching the mailing list archive is tedious and produces lots of non-relevant data -– an experience most of us can relate to, especially when searching a public forum or email archive. Given that we want to be a helpful resource for our advisers and encourage them to collaborate with us on a regular basis, providing inadequate tools is far from ideal.

What we would like to find is a set of collaboration tools that will allow us to build a knowledge base that is useful for both our internal diligence and our network of advisers. Ideally, the tool would take our mailing list traffic, automatically organize and tag it, and then allow context-based searches. Other desired features would involve both propagating popular information up and down the knowledge base and allowing members to rate it (perhaps in a Digg-like fashion).

I’ve looked at numerous solutions already. Being a reformed software engineer and open source advocate, I started with phpBB, but its implementation required more time and effort than I was willing to invest. I thought of building our own social network with Ning, but that didn’t seem to have the right tools to increase collaboration. On a friend’s referral, I then looked into Clearspace from Jive Software, only to realize that while this enterprise-class software could do what we want, it has more horsepower than we need and requires more system administration than we can support (see Anne’s previous coverage of Jive).

Since we all use Microsoft Exchange and Outlook (along with a Blackberry, part of the standard venture capital package, I’m afraid), I did poke around Sharepoint a bit, but this software seems focused on document collaboration. I even played around with GroupSwim , a company providing on-demand community collaboration software that looks very promising. Like Jive’s Clearspace, they offer the automatic tagging, search and knowledge base archives that we are looking for while maintaining email as the primary communication mechanism. I am hopeful our advisers can eventually start to use the web to collaborate vs. email, but I am not holding my breath.

How are you are using collaboration tools, either within your organization or between your organization and community? What works best — and what has been a disappointment?

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  1. You might check out the socialtext wiki (disclaimer, I work there but not in sales).
    We have pretty cool mail archiving, and the ability to tag and comment on it through the wiki ui, and a nice API to automate things.
    We have a bunch of other collaborative space tooling, RSS watch lists etc. We have a sharepoint module to if you decide you do want that document archiving (can be done in the wiki of course but we don’t have the versioning controls and check out stuff).
    We have a open source version, hosted and we sell an appliance. There is a lot of competition in the space but we are pretty good about listening to a full set of business needs and selling (with training) a set of solutions.
    Anyway sounds like ti might be worth your time to hear the full pitch :).

  2. Check out Mindtouch Deki Wiki. I’ve been playing with it and shows a lot of promise as a next-generation wiki. Also check out the Outlook connector (still in alpha).

    http://wiki.mindtouch.com/Deki_Wiki

  3. Definitely look into CentralDesktop. I used it last year and it was really helpful. It provided printable status reports for my team, message boards, task lists and milestones, etc.
    http://www.centraldesktop.com

  4. Basecamp (project management) and Highrise (contact management) from 37Signals are both superb.

  5. New take on the problem. You may want to consider looking at Twine for your issues which is set to launch soon from Radar Networks. I’ve been an alpha tester and believe it has some really interesting methods of knowledge basing and collaboration/commenting with both private/public capability. The big piece is that it uses semantic principles which helps with classification and tagging.

    http://www.twine.com

  6. One word: activeCollab. Simple, elegant and beautiful.

    http://www.activecollab.com

  7. I have a similar problem – I need a lightweight knowledge management system (we currently use a the raw windows folder file tree in a shared drive) and an external collaboration tool for advisers and volunteers. The missing piece is a business process management. The question is how do you move a deal from a prospect to an initial meeting, to a term sheet negotiation to the due diligence stage – and then how do you manage the deals once they are in your portfolio?

    A couple of local companies are working on parts of this issue. http://www.openteams.com is the best and most appropriate with its structured wiki format and extraordinary design. http://www.dealbench.com comes out of the corporate M&A world and is more focused on the document workflow.

    We use http://www.angelsoft.net for our Angel investment group (www.houstonangelnetwork.org) and it is somewhat helpful.

    I’m very curious to see what other companies come up in this thread because I believe that there are hundreds of small office private equity, VC and professional investment firms that could use a hosted, yet private solution.

  8. Go look at Central Desktop. We use it to manage a standards group with about 50 people all from different organizations.

    They make heavy use of email so most of the people still use email to stay up to date, yet evrything is archived, tagged and searchable for future retrieval. Essentially google groups on steriods.

  9. My company(55 people) has been using Groupswim for about 2 months and it does a great job with auto tagging and most of the functionality you mention. They just added ‘email in’ which is a great feature, but combined with auto tags make it a killer feature.

  10. I’ve looked into a variety of tools for my organizations as well. They have been using Yahoo and Google groups but are looking to switch to tools with more functionality that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Each of my them use at least 10 groups on Yahoo/Google for various committees and member-types. The most pressing problems we’ve seen is low member involvement and difficulty in keeping content up to date.

    For a while, I’ve worked on getting a web application built, which is now becoming publicly available (Convos.com). It would help my organizations create and manage all of the groups they need (committees, teams, boards, etc) and provide them with email listservs and intranet-like features. From my perspective, this is a structural and organizational layer on top of email, which we will utilize more so that messaging becomes smarter and more useful.

    Here are other tools, we’ve looked at:

    MS SharePoint Server – too much configuration and administrative work.
    AirSet – A good amount of functionality, but poor navigation/usability
    Custom CMS (Drupal, Xoops, DotNetNuke, PhpNuke) – very flexible systems but require know-how to implement and configure.
    WebOffice
    eRoom
    Groove Networks
    CommunityZero
    BaseCamp

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