X Marks the Spot

random commentary on life, the universe, and anything

Finding the right collaboration tools (part 2) or can you declare task management bankruptcy?


It seems like every couple of years, without fail, I go through a time management/project management/collaboration tools reboot. In the dark days, it was merely shifting from one paper layout and project tracking system to another: Dayrunner to Day-Timer to Franklin Planner to Levenger Circa. My favorite was a Julie Morgenstern 2-page-per-day layout sold by Franklin Planner.
Julie Morgenstern planner format
There was a two-year period of sheer planner nirvana when Franklin dumped this planner format and Levenger picked it up for their Circa line. I really like the Circa line. I like the tactile feel of paper, especially when you get a good pen and good thick paper. Writing helps me to remember better than typing (I’m old that way). I really liked the layout. But I was always forgetting the planner in my office or car or at home and inevitably either I spent time copying from paper scraps and post-its into the planner, or had a planner-based collection of paper scraps and post-its. In any case, my hand was forced when Levenger dropped the Morgenstern planner format. (It’s still available at http://www.juliemorgenstern.com/books/balancedlifeplanner/oct-dec2015).

It was only a couple years ago where I felt that technology has emerged/converged to the point that I could get rid of the planner (with regret). I switched the family over to iCloud for calendar sharing, began using Omnifocus for task management on both laptop and iOS devices (iPhone, iPad), and added Evernote for knowledge and high-level project management and Dropbox for data and document hoarding. These worked fine for me, but really were inadequate for collaborative projects and there was always the issue of syncing between Omnifocus, which is an outstanding task manager, but is NOT a project management solution, and Evernote. It was better than before, where I had to mine paper in order to sync up everything, but I still had multiple repositories of data to reconcile (calendar/email/Omnifocus/Evernote/Dropbox).

The need that was met at that time was focused on me – my work, solo projects, and academic collaborations (papers, book) that I could muscle through with the tools at hand. But I wanted more. I wanted to find a solid collaboration tool that would allow my colleagues to sync with me across the different types of work that I do. And I wanted to pay as little as possible. From a technology perspective, it had to be multi-platform – web and mobile app for sure, but also a desktop/laptop client for those off-line periods.

A couple years ago, I went looking for a web-based collaboration tool based upon the following ideal requirements:

  1. Dashboard/Overview – an effective presentation of all projects
  2. Project Workspaces – well-designed spaces to organize data, tasks, etc for a single project
  3. Email integration – for reminders, status reports
  4. Document management, w/ integration to Google Docs, Dropbox, Box
  5. Task management, w/ integration with Omnifocus
  6. Calendar/event notification, w/ integration with Google Calendar, iCal
  7. Knowledge management – such as a wiki

For collaboration tools, I looked at:

  • Basecamp – which is still widely used, and pricing is still $20/month for 10 active projects, unlimited users, but as I’m the only user for the majority of the time, it seemed like overkill.
  • TeamLab Office which is now ONLYOFFICE – (why the ALL CAPS, bruh?) It has morphed into more of a productivity suite solution which is not what I wanted.
  • Teambox which is now Redbooth – which has also held firm on pricing, for $5/user/month, unlimited projects, Google Drive, Dropbox, and Evernote integration, and the workflow best matches what I want.
  • Feng Office – which amazingly enough has kept its name AND the same crappy UI
  • OpenAtrium – which is built on Drupal 7 (which I like), but is buggy to install, too much work to manage, and as it runs on Drupal, turns out to be even more of a resource hog than normal Drupal on the leetle server that I use for personal stuff (rackspace hosted, 512M RAM virtual server). I’m already using WordPress, so running 2 CMS seems rather silly and excessive. In any case, I have tried iterations of this from 0.7 through the current 2.4 code release because I do love me my Drupal. Same same. So sad.

I wound up running the at-the-time available, but unsupported Teambox 3 code, using Ruby on Rails. It was easy to bring up, but while the fun+tinkering:sysadmin work ratio was very high, so was the time required:sysadmin work ratio. I had better (higher reward:time expended ratio) things to do with my time. I abandoned it.

For a couple years, I have muddled through using a combination of:

  1. Whiteboards for dashboards and overviews
  2. Evernote notebooks for knowledge management and rudimentary project workspaces
  3. Dropbox for file sharing
  4. Omnifocus for task management
  5. email email email

Not terribly integrated, but survivable as I had to significantly trim the breadth of my work in order to focus on our Cerner EHR implementation and roll-out. However, we are (finally) coming to the end of the go-live cycle and many of those long dormant (i.e. ignored) projects and papers are starting to emerge out of cryo. My work teams have also expanded in number and breadth and I need a way to track and manage that as well.

I had to declare email bankruptcy to start the year fresh. It seemed like a good time to look at collaboration tools again.

Next post: I find Trello (think pinterest for projects) and bitrix24 which is a collaboration package which is free for fewer than 12 users, with unlimited projects. Do we have a winner?

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