Can't We All Just Get Along and Collaborate?

Distributed companies can still brainstorm and work together

Mindjet's new Catalyst application turns your browser into an all-hands meeting place, and once the brainstorming stops, LiquidPlanner's project management tool helps turn ideas into reality.

All disaster movies have at least one scene where the experts huddle around a whiteboard of some type and struggle with ways to defeat the volcano / tornado / tidal wave / moon falling out of its orbit. Gathering the experts together for brainstorming works well, but what if your experts are scattered? The work world today is distributed, not gathered around the same whiteboard. Luckily, Mindjet's new Catalyst application turns your browser into an all-hands meeting place. You supply the disaster.

MindManager8, the brain mapping tool from Mindjet, helps individuals and groups organize information visually. Almost 1.5 million clients use MindManager8 to connect thoughts full of notes, pictures, documents and Web pages. Catalyst adds Web conferencing into the mix, so you can brainstorm across the Internet just as if you were brainstorming across a conference table.

Last year the company made it possible to share individual maps among workgroups, making it easy for teams to work on maps separately or concurrently. Catalyst adds the real time Web conference features of audio conference calls, whiteboards, and presence to mind mapping.

Scott Raskin, CEO of Mindjet, said, “We took the best tools and technology available, put them all on a single platform, then added the collaboration processes so team members could work together. Everyone's on the same page.”, Raskin used to give demos using WebEx. Now he uses his own Web conferencing tool, Catalyst.

Those who have video cameras on their computer can put up to five other meeting participants in the video section. If you're one who likes to look at someone's face as they talk, you can do that. If voice alone is good enough, you can have up to 15 participants in an audio conference.

The manager function controls access to features and pages, making it easy to allow some to edit and others only to read and comment. Your conference can be all employees or include customers or suppliers. Heck, you can include both, drawing connections between the work goals from the customer, the parts you bring to the project, and maybe a vendor providing hardware. It's easier for everyone to get on the same page when they're looking at the same page,

Pricing for the Catalyst addition to MindManager8 is about half that for GoToMeeting or WebEx. You can get just the shared mind mapping tool and add audio and video when necessary. If your business lends itself to regular staff meetings, getting the entire system makes it easier than ever for a group to regularly meet, work on agenda items, talk, look at each other, and keep notes. Yes, Mindjet has a free trial.

Once the brainstorming stops, however, someone must translate ideas into reality. LiquidPlanner, the only project management tool that makes allowances for sliding estimates with inexact completion dates for tasks, handles this part easily. Where Mindjet links ideas visually, LiquidPlanner visually shows estimated completion times based on honest time estimates, not a single deadline that everyone knows will move.

Since everyone knows a set deadline is just a guess, LiquidPlanner allows you to enter a range for the deadline. When they aren’t sure if something will take one or two weeks, most people guess 10 days. LiquidPlanner lets you put 1-2 weeks, then adjusts all the other tasks connected to yours by the same range. You'll get more accurate estimates and better project management because each task slides based on dependent tasks.

To make project management collaborative, LiquidPlanner added some features from the texting and wiki worlds. Chatter is like “Twitter with a purpose,” said LiquidPlanner CEO Charles Seybold. “And you can manage your projects with our new iPhone app.”

Conversations about projects inside LiquidPlanner are available as threads tied to projects, and users can see the comments. As with Mindjet, you can specify who creates and edits versus who reads and comments. Teams can have their own group pages with customization tools like logos and sets of tabs to share with each other and clients or suppliers. LiquidPlanner has a free trial, of course, and discounts for volume and prepayments.

Both of these options use the Software As A Service model, and are hosted by their respective companies. Anyone with a browser can use these tools from anywhere, although Mindjet also has a desktop application that integrates with the hosted service.

Even better, since these services use the SaaS model, the Business Software Alliance (see last week) can't come and claim you're violating some license agreement. With SaaS, you pay a little each month, and you get access, upgrades, and services as part of that monthly payment. And protection from any of the BSA thugs, er, lawyers coming to shake you down.

Use these programs to collaborate and create a project, then manage the project. Smaller companies benefit from working together, and tools like these make it easy to work together mentally even when you're far apart physically.

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