Three Main Types
Online collaboration tools can be divided into three main groups by their purpose.
- Meeting Platforms – making and managing the audio and video connection
- Document Sharing – allowing remote participants to see, share and collaborate on documents
- Collaborative Canvas’ – allowing remote participants to work together as they would on a whiteboard or working wall.
Examples of these tools have been developing since the internet began, but of course COVID led to much more rapid development of the existing products and the emergence of many new versions. COVID also led to a huge increase in the willingness of organisations to try remote working. Today, the question “does this meeting or workshop NEED to be in-person?” is regarded as a valid one by more and more organisations.
Choosing and Using Tools
Our key principles for selecting which tools to use for a particular interaction and using them are:
- Choose the least complex tools required to do the work you have planned.
(Do not use fancy tools and features just because they are available or fun)
- Where the client or participants are already familiar with a specific tool and there is no added cost – and it passes the test in (1) – use that rather than your personal favourite tool if you can.
- Spend time getting good at using your tools
- For anything more than a small group with fairly simple requirements -if you can possibly manage it (cost) get someone other than the lead facilitator to run the tech. If you are feeling posh – call them the ‘Production Director’.
What we use, when and why
1 Meeting Platforms
Most of our clients use ZOOM or TEAMS, so we do also. They arguably emerged from COVID as the market leaders. Google Meet works well if you are using the wider Google Suite but it does not have richer meeting features of ZOOM and TEAMS. We have also worked with the ADOBE platform (very powerful but a bit complex) and GoToMeeting.
TEAMS and Google of course are integrated into suites of tools that also enable document sharing and collaboration.
ZOOM and TEAMS allow you to specify the location of the servers carrying the meeting, which matters for some clients who do not want to use tools based in certain countries for security reasons.
We don’t usually need to use the higher level ‘conference management’ tools like Hopin.
2 Document Sharing and Collaboration
Most of our clients already use SHAREPOINT and TEAMS, so increasingly we do also. These clients use it because of the Office 365 integration, but in many cases, also have to meet requirements not to hold data in certain countries and Office 365 allows you to control this. Google Docs, for example, is we beieve, all based on US servers.
We have also used Dropbox (but this has server location issues), Slack, Loomio, Huddle and others – usually where the client has a preference.
3 Collaboration Canvas’
For very simple exercises, the built in whiteboard tools in Zoom and Teams are getting much better than they were pre-Covid – as they have gradually added more features found in the more specialist tools. For Google fans – Jamboard is a good simple tool.
Much of our work requires more complex system mapping exercises so we have used both MURAL and MIRO – both of which existed pre-covid. These two have many similar features that go far beyond what is available in the simple tools mentioned above and both are designed to be a platform in which you create entire workshop experiences.
Both MIRO and MURAL have full integration add-ins for ZOOM and TEAMS.
We now use MIRO by default unless a client is using MURAL, simply because at the time we were making the decision (a) MIRO’s charging structure was better suited to our work as consultants (in how it charged for workshop guests) and (b) MIRO could offer EU based hosting and MURAL could not.
The final tool we recommend is PRSM – a specialist web-based system designed specifically for Participatory System Mapping. PRSM is free to use and came out of the work of CECAN on complexity in policy evaluation.