Working together apart

Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it also wreaks havoc on trying to work together. Mobile computing has engendered telecommuting, virtual offices, and peripatetic work forces.
Written by Alfred Poor, Contributor
Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it also wreaks havoc on trying to work together. Mobile computing has engendered telecommuting, virtual offices, and peripatetic work forces. Yet there are some tasks that are not easily accomplished in this brave, mobile world. Take, for example, the lowly report draft.

In a "real" office, you bang out the words, and then you get a printer to spit out a copy. You then travel within the org chart to run your report up the proverbial flagpole. Maybe you check with a peer on your team to see if you've got it straight, or maybe you go to your boss for initial input. Or maybe you just trot down to the photocopier and make enough copies to paper the office so that nobody feels left out. You end up with several copies of a document defaced with pen scribbles. You revise the report, repeat the process, and when you stop getting scribbles back, the report is done.

For mobile workers, you can fax a draft to people, if they have a fax machine. You can e-mail a document for them to edit directly and return to you, but then you have the problem of consolidating the edits from different sources. But which of those dozen "Q3Sale.doc" attached files in your e-mail inbox is the latest version? And how do you know that your boss even got the draft copy to look at?

Web-based collaboration sites offer a terrific way to share documents, and you even get some benefits that are missing with the office SneakerNet. One such file collaboration services among the many that are available on the Internet is WebGroups from Punch Networks.

With WebGroups, you set up shared file areas that can be accessed from any computer with access to the Web. Small sites with up to 10 MB of storage are free, and there are fee-based options for customized or larger scale applications.

WebGroups lets you post files to the site, and others who have access to the site can then download and view the files. You can choose which members who are enrolled in a WebGroup have access to individual files. Members also can make changes, and post revised documents, making it easy to collaborate.

WebGroups has a number of helpful features. When a revised version of a file is posted on the site, WebGroups sends automatic notifications to everyone who has been given access to the file. WebGroup also stores every version of the file as it is revised, making it possible to go back and see what has been changed in recent versions. If a member of the group downloads a file to make changes, the file is locked on the Web; no new versions can be uploaded until the person uploads his revised version and unlocks the file, or cancels his reservation, if he chooses not to make changes. The system also is smart enough to only send the portion of the file that has changed, which can speed transfer times.

You can track who has downloaded files, and which versions. If your boss hasn't seen the latest draft, you can e-mail a gentle reminder to check it.

WebGroups data is protected by four different security layers, from encryption on the data server to the login ID and password required for each user.

Shared file services can be used for more than just revising drafts. You can use them to distribute changing information--such as price lists or inventory reports--to workers in the field, so that they always have access to the latest version, and you can tell at a glance who has picked it up and who hasn't. Individuals can use them to park files for access from other machines while traveling. Itinerant workers who have no fixed base can store work files on such a service. While it's true there are other services that offer Internet file storage without collaborative features, they don't have as extensive a range of capabilities.

When it comes to collaborating on documents, the Web now makes it almost just like being there--or even better. You don't have to wait in line for the photocopier to get the document to everyone else.

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