Free Project Management Tools for the Virtual Office

There are a number of powerful web-based tools that allow your virtual office to collaborate across distance and time in a common virtual environment – and most of them won’t cost you a dime. These tools make it possible for distributed work groups to manage projects as though they were working in the same physical space.

Instant Communication Tools
Like a telephone, live communication tools allow you to interact in real time by talking or typing. Instant messaging, video conferencing, and screen sharing are some of the options that are explored in this recent ETMG summary of live communication tools. Most are free and many are now accessible via Android and Apple mobile devices. Tools reviewed include AIM instant messenger, Skype video conferencing, Cisco WebEx Meeting Center, and more.

Free Document Sharing & Collaboration Tools
It’s time to stop emailing attachments and begin sharing links instead. All of the solutions identified here function in The Cloud and will bring you into the 21st Century.

Google Sites  and Google Docs. Many organizations are using Google Sites as their shared intranet; an internal “home base.” Google Sites allows you to create a platform that is secure (you can control who sees what), free, easy to use, and connects with hundreds of free productivity apps. Add to that the free, shared spreadsheets, text documents, presentations (like PowerPoint), drawings, and collections of Google Docs and you have a powerful information sharing platform.

Google+ – Google+ was intended as a competitor to Facebook, but this free social media tool is fast becoming a favorite of project managers because you can move away from email and consolidate communication and documents into one place. Links, images, documents, etc can all link from a single “circle.” It’s easy, graphic, free, and – most importantly – you can control who is in the circle.

Microsoft SkyDrive – SkyDrive was late to the game but came up with a product similar to Google Docs. The free account gives you 25G of free storage and a familiar interface to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents. And, of course you can share the link with someone, or anyone.

Connected CRM – This company was just acquired by LinkedIn and provides a free database of customer account information that integrates with social media tools and contacts from other apps.

DropBox – DropBox allows you to save and share files on the web and gives you 2G of free space with the free account.

Surdoc – You may have heard the ads for Carbonite online backup. Surdoc is a free tool that, like Carbonite, backs up 25G of your hard drive. It automatically backs up files from your computer and allows you, or your team mates, to retrieve from anywhere.

Lucid Chart– For flow charts, org charts, wireframes, and diagrams, this free, web-based tool is hard to beat.

Slide Rocket – SlideRock is a nice alternative to PowerPoint. It provides a unique set of presentation options and puts your presentation in the cloud where it’s easy to share and access.

Gantter – You are going to need a project plan. One way is to use a simple Google Doc spreadsheet, or a Google Calendar, but this won’t give you the graphical Gantt view. Gantter integrates with Google Docs and gives you an interface similar to MS Project.

Ganttic – Similar to Gantter but specific to scheduling trucks, etc. The free account allows you to manage a small project.

Kashoo – This accounting software is simple, runs in a browser, and for most projects the free version will do the trick. It complies with GAAP and is easy to use.

PassPack – All this online stuff means a lot of passwords. PassPack allows you to store and share passwords with other members of your team.

These tools can help you create an online environment that empowers everyone to participate in a successful project, regardless of location or time zone.

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Moving Business Workflows to The Cloud

Businesses large and small are moving computing workflows off of the desktop and into the cloud, giving workers the opportunity to create, share, and manage information more easily and securely. Here are a few things to consider when moving to the cloud:

Sharing documents: Cloud computing makes it easier for marketers to collaborate on projects and to work on them from remote locations. Cloud-based document sharing solutions like Microsoft SkyDrive, Microsoft Sharepoint,, Google Docs, and others allow marketers to create marketing materials and presentations in the cloud and send a link – not an attachment – to recipients. The advantage is significant: recipients can click the link and work on a single, shared document instead of multiple versions of an email-attached file.

Maximizing budgets: Because they do not require hosted software or IT installations, many cloud-based marketing solutions – such as presentation tools, design software, and email clients – require no upfront costs. This often means a smoother budget approval process and an easier time selecting and switching out platforms until you find what works for you. It also enables marketers to use the money saved from not buying hosted solutions on other uses.

Keeping track of bookmarks: Smartphones and tablets aren’t designed to store large files, so why not let the data live in the cloud and simply access it when you need it through bookmarks? This means getting more serious about managing your bookmarks. Here are a few cloud-based solutions that will help keep you organized no matter where you are: – one of the best know solutions, Delicious helps you store and organize bookmarks and even share them with others.
Google Bookmarks – Google has a very strong product because it integrates with the Chrome browser, allowing you to easily add a “bookmark this” button to the Chrome toolbar and pump your links directly into your cloud-based Google account. – A simple interface that integrates with several browser toolbars. – the original, Yahoo! Bookmarks are an important part of many myYahoo accounts. Yahoo! To save links with a single click you must install the Yahoo! toolbar into your browser. Like Xmarks, MyBookmarks is a free tool with straightforward interface.

Keeping track of passwords: You could set up a Google document to keep track of your passwords, but that’s risky; a lost smartphone or open browser can leave you exposed. Word or Excel document can be password protected but you can’t access them from anywhere. So, back to the cloud we go for password storage and retrieval:

Passpack. Passpack is one of the best. Very secure, easy to use, with a simple interface that works on any device with a browser.
Roboform. Roboform has been around for some time and offers a series of time-saving and mobile features.
LastPass. LastPass is another cloud-based solution with a premium version that’s only $1 a month!
SplashID. SplashID provides desktop apps that upload to the cloud and it appears to function on mobile devices.

Everyone knows that cloud computing provides opportunities for IT cost savings, document sharing, remote access, device independence and increased security, but cloud solutions hold special benefits for marketers. So ask yourself, are you fully maximizing the cloud?

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Shared Documents 101

Has this ever happened to you? You create a document in Microsoft Word, let’s say a proposal, and now you need feedback from your coworkers. So, you write an email and attach the document, asking everyone to provide edits using “track changes” and return to you by next Tuesday. You don’t look forward to Tuesday because you know that you will soon be receiving eight versions of the same document, all with their own unique revisions that must be incorporated into a single document (in MS Word you would merge these documents using Insert>Object, then get to work making decisions about which changes to keep and which ones to ignore). With revisions incorporated, you send the document out again for a final review and wait for more changes . A week later you are finally ready to send the proposal to the client.

Fortunately, cloud computing offers a better way. By using “shared documents” you can make collaboration faster and easier for text documents, spreadsheets, presentations, drawings, and images. Shared documents are documents that live in the cloud, not your hard drive, and offer some collaboration tools that are not available with traditional installed software applications.

The two leading providers of shared documents, Google Docs and Microsoft SkyDrive, both offer free consumer solutions as well as fee-for-service models for large corporate customers. For most of us, all that is required is an internet connection, a web browser, and a free Gmail or SkyDrive account. Let’s look more closely at Google Docs, keeping in mind that SkyDrive operates on the same basic principles.

Google Docs allows anyone with an account (start by getting a free Gmail email address) to create documents that live on Google’s servers. Once a document is created it is shared by sending a link (not an attachment) so that collaborators are all looking at one single document sitting in the cloud. Google Docs are always viewed in a web browser, though they can be downloaded in a variety of formats for those times where you decide to keep a copy on a hard drive.

As the creator of a Google Doc, you have control over who can see or edit the document. You might choose to keep the document private, share it with one or two specific people, or let anyone on the internet see it, kind of like a web page. You can also control whether people can edit the document or simply view it.

The power of shared documents really becomes evident when all eight of your collaborators are working on the document at the same time; you can see edits taking place before your eyes in real time, with a different color representing each person. Google Docs also provides a “Comment” sidebar that allows multiple threaded discussions to take place, like a bulletin board that accompanies the document.

Another strength of Google Docs is the “Revision History” tool that shows the history of changes made to the document. It’s very similar to “Track Changes” in Microsoft Word, though considerably easier to use, showing who made what change and when. Revision History is available for the spreadsheet, presentation, and drawing tools, but the tool is very hard to find! Click the gray text at the top of the page that says “All Changes Saved” to access Google’s Revision History tool.

The days of email-attached documents is nearly over, and that is a very good thing because managing documents in the cloud is easier, cheaper, more secure, and provides real collaboration to unlimited participants working from any internet-connected device.


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Top 5 Advantages of Cloud Computing

“The Cloud” is a metaphor for computing that takes place on the internet, as opposed to your desktop computer. By using software applications that are hosted on the internet, many businesses have found that they can quickly increase their computing capabilities without investing in new software or infrastructure. Sometimes referred to as SaaS (software as a service), there are a number of advantages to moving business processes and data storage off of the desktop and into the cloud. Here are the top five:

1) IT cost savings. Until recently, new software applications required every computer in the enterprise to get a software install. Cloud computing, by contrast, doesn’t require special software since most applications run in a web browser like Firefox, Explorer, or Chrome. Many desktop applications, like MS Excel, are being replaced by cloud-based solutions, like a Google Docs Spreadsheet. This doesn’t mean that all cloud-based solutions are free; in fact, most are not. But the per-user fee structures of hosted web applications are proving to be far less costly than traditional installed software packages and the hardware upgrades that inevitably follow.

2) Easy file sharing for workgroups. Improving workflows may be the strongest argument in favor of operating in the cloud. Instead of emailing documents around, cloud computing allows everyone to work on a single document or data set simultaneously. Having a single, shared document sitting on a server somewhere alleviates the headache of email attachments and the problem of creating multiple instances of the same document (ten versions of the budget!).

3) Remote access. The days of synchronizing your laptop before a business trip are nearly over. Remote workers can access data from anywhere since their files no longer live on their desktop. The cloud has accelerated the explosion of mobile devices with address books and other personal data stored on a server instead of on the device itself. All you need is a device with a network connection, a browser, and a way to keep track of your links and passwords.

4) Device independence. Remember the old question “will it open on my Mac?” Cloud computing is hardware and OS agnostic so applications they will run on any network-connected device.

5) Security. We all have a natural tendency to want our data on computers we can see and touch, but the server farms created by cloud solution providers have so many layers of redundancy that you can be 99% certain that your data is secure.

Cloud computing does require some changes to the way we work but most of the new habits are simple learn. The top two adaptations: 1) learning to share links instead of attachments, and 2) remembering to “share” your document so that others can read or edit.

It may be hard to get used to the idea that your business applications and data are managed in places you will never see by people you will never know, but the advantages make cloud computing the next big step toward more efficient business processes.

Read more:

Mashable, 2012: How Cloud Computing is Changing a Generation
ZDNet, 2012: Cloud Computing: Do You Have a Clue?
Envision Technology Media Group, 2012, Free Project Management Tools for the Virtual Office
TechRepublic, 2012: Cloud Computing Terms You Should Know
ZDNet, 2012, Public Cloud Computing: Which Vendor is Your Best Bet?

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Santa Cruz Rail Videos Go Live

On December 1, 2011, I had the opportunity to videotape and photograph the entire Santa Cruz Branch Line rail corridor. Sierra Northern Railroad set up a flat car in front of a locomotive and allowed me to strap a video camera to the front end. Click here see the one-mile video segments of the scenic 32-mile line. Or, visit our channel on YouTube.

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