Guest Post: How do you collaborate?

Karen Munro is a project management expert based in Australia, she teaches workshops and mentors project managers around the globe, and has recently adopted Xtrant into her workflow.  This piece was published on her blog Project Management Insight.

Collaboration tools make sharing information across a project team easier

Collaboration tools make sharing information across a project team easier.

The ability to collaborate as a project team is the key to it’s success.  As the Project Manager you need to ensure that collaboration across the team is easy and working.

For the past four months I have been using a collaboration tool for my own projects. There are a number of these tools available in the market, each with similar and different features.

I’m going to talk about my own personal experiences of using Xtrant so that you gain some idea of the value that I see in using this sort of tool.

Collaboration across site/country boundaries

One of the key benefits I’ve found with using this tool is that I have been easily working with others spread right across Australia. This collaboration involves sharing information, sourcing new information, having continuing discussions, creating and editing documents together. And yes, this could all be done via emails, BUT the benefit with the tool is that there is no long trail of messages that are being sent backwards and forwards. I don’t need to have countless documents attached to emails, or have to create multiple emails in order to move the attachments because of bandwidth issues.

The number of collaborators is unlimited

This has been valuable for a large fundraising project that I’m involved in. There are currently upwards of 60 people involved in this project.  What’s great is that there is one site where all of the information is published. Everyone has access to the same material.  Updates are made and everyone is aware of that. They can access the material in their own time, make comments, interact, share etc and again this is all together in the one place on the site. An email that is going to 60 people would become unruly, especially if each of those people interacts with it in some way.

I can access the information anywhere

Okay, so most people have their work emails downloading onto their smart phones these days. The limit with that is the ability to update and comment on documents on a smartphone – with an iPad or Tablet it’s different, and yes it’s doable.

The benefit of using a collaboration tool such as Xtrant is that anywhere I have an internet connection I have access to all of the documents and material that I need for the projects I’m working on. I can also add material whether I’m sitting at home, or in a cafe, or away interstate. I don’t need to have access to my work email to do that.

The information I gather and the history is all stored in one place

You know how you can have multiple email trails, sometimes related to the same topic or item. Well one of the other key benefits of using a collaboration tool is that the material is all there in the trail in the one place. I don’t need to know who sent me the email and when. It makes viewing and reviewing conversations and material so much easier.

I asked James Sposto, the CEO of Xtrant some questions about the tool.

Karen: “What are the features of Xtrant that make it useful as a project collaboration tool?”

James: “The feature set, as it stands now, is very simple – Each project, or workspace, has 5 basic elements – what the project or initiative is (Overview), who’s involved (People), what specifically is getting done (Milestones), a timeline of the files, documents and links being shared or uploaded to the project (Shared Assets), and the conversations that are about the project (Running Notes), keeping all this information contextually centered around the topic or initiative that the project represents.”

“We also have an algorithm that customizes the view for each individual member of a project, highlighting and bringing to the top any notes, assets and comments not seen since their last visit. This, along with the ability to check when your collaborators have last visited the project, makes Xtrant an “accountability engine”.  There’s no excuse for missing something, and once they’ve seen all updates and changes, the notes and asset timelines revert to the original posting order so the integrity of the project history is maintained.”

“This same ordering and notification system extends to the project dashboard – bringing to the top and highlighting the projects with updates that you haven’t seen – while keeping the rest of the projects in order of most recent update.”

“But the defining feature of Xtrant is its simplicity and flexibility – by incorporating familiar social protocols – the way most of us communicate online – allows for easy adoption of the system, which is important for any tool being introduced to a diverse team with different work styles. That simplicity also allows team members with different work and communication styles to use the same platform comfortably.”

Karen: “What are the limitations of the system (from your perspective)?”

James: “From my perspective most of the limitations are ones we are addressing in our product roadmap.”

“At the moment I’d say our biggest limitation is our mobile support – though the present web interface will work on a tablet, the web app is not optimized for mobile.  The good news is our mobile app is in beta and will soon be released for both Android and iOS (along with a mobile-web optimized version of the site.)”

“Other limitations we are addressing include the ability for our users to assign and transfer tasks or milestones to individuals on the project, and the ability to have discussions or comments around those milestones.  We’d also like to incorporate tagging into comments and asset posts.  By adding an @karenmunro tag to an asset or note, you would know it’s for you, and though it would be viewable by another team member, they wouldn’t get an email or mobile alert notification.”

“The final limitation I see is our continued reliance on Email as a notification system – which is somewhat ironic for what’s supposed to be an “email killer”.  The users already have the option of disabling email notifications in their preferences – or limiting them to a max of once every 6 hours, which is great for our clients who stay on Xtrant throughout the workday, but once we have Mobile alerts it will make sense for users to disable email notifications completely.”

“A traditional project manager might find the lack of dependencies, gantt charts or progress tracking problematic, we think that those functions are best left to tools of those PMs choosing – while our purpose is as a communication and collaboration platform that anyone can use.”

Karen: “What sort of people are you expecting will get the most out of Xtrant?”

James: “Anyone who uses email or multiple, disparate platforms to communicate and collaborate for business – that includes individuals who need a platform that can be both internal and client facing – like independent professionals and freelancers who work with a variety of people and need to collate their communication into separate verticals based on client, project or initiative.”

“We also see small teams within a corporate or small business environment – especially if one or more of them work remotely, getting a lot out of Xtrant.”

Karen: “Do you see Xtrant evolving in any way in the future?”

James: “There are subtle and obvious evolutions – the addition of a calendar view, outside calendar integration (syncing with Google or ICal) and task assignments – there is an extensive wish list for functionality, but those functions will be weighed and added judiciously to ensure the core experience and ease of use of Xtrant doesn’t suffer.”

“I see Xtrant integrating with other platforms – cross connecting to Google Docs (we employ google reader for previews already) and tangentially competing services like DropBox.  I also see opportunity in the new API that the Mobile app runs on (code named “SoulBurger”)  extending the capabilities and potential integreations and customizations of the platform.”

“Ultimately, I’d like to see Xtrant be the default platform for business communications – the way the world does business.  That may be pie in the sky, but there’s no reason not to aim for the stars, and the variety of users in all kinds of businesses that are already using Xtrant tells us that possibility is there.”

If you are considering using an online tool for collaboration, check the web to see what’s available . There are a number of tools out there today that provide these same sorts of service.  Personally, I like Xtrant.

Xtrant Keeps Medical Device Company Nimble

mbi“Limited human and financial resources force us to be efficient and Xtrant provides that efficiency for us.” –Troy Drewry, MB Innovations

Small and nimble with a global reach, MB Innovations provides research, design and development services for medical device manufacturers—working with an array of local and national partners and providers. They’re the kind of company we designed Xtrant to help—and the fit couldn’t be more perfect.

We talked with CEO Troy Drewry about his team’s experience:

What kinds of things were frustrating your progress before Xtrant?
Not having an adequate communication tool for ALL team members and shareholders… the inefficiency of not having everyone on the same page and not having all the project related assets in one place, accessible by everyone. I was trying to run projects and communications via email and from my inbox, but size requirements made it difficult to exchange large files.

What solutions did you try before you tried Xtrant?
Email and conference calls, but there were too many balls dropped between team members and lack of project accountability.

What features of Xtrant have reduced that frustration?
Now we have all team members invited to the project and ALL communications being distributed reliably to everyone. All documents and chronological hierarchy are preserved in each project. It completely removes my Inbox from the equation – if it is project related it belongs in Xtrant – no exceptions. There’s a nice project interface, it allows for all file extensions to be uploaded and published in a project, and there are no size limitations.

What are three features you love about Xtrant?

  1. Ease of use/simplicity—we have team members of all levels of computer skills and everyone can pick up Xtrant and run with it immediately
  2. Email updates— we are notified whenever anything is updated on a project
  3. Project History—nice chronological format of all project assets and communications – one stop project shop!

As a startup, what has Xtrant allowed you to do, that otherwise would have been difficult?
We now have a way to keep everyone on the same page, seamless file sharing, and a focused environment for project execution. As a startup company that was able to use Xtrant almost from day one, we could not have been as productive and successful without it. Limited human and financial resources force us to be efficient and Xtrant provides that efficiency for us.

Why do you love Xtrant?
Frankly, it is FUN to use. I think it is a very similar to the attraction of social media sites but for business! It is truly a simple tool that sets you and your project team for success!

Using the power of Productive Sharing to increase efficiency and project accountability can be the difference between a flourishing small business and a floundering one. You can try Xtrant now using our free basic Xtrant account to get more done and unlock your team’s potential!

10 (Other) Ways to Use Xtrant

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Overheard: But I don’t DO “projects” how can I use Xtrant?

We understand the confusion, Xtrant is a project platform – and we call each of the workspaces you create in Xtrant a project, but if you think of Xtrant in broader terms – as a communication and collaboration platform, as an online file cabinet, as a knowledge repository, you’ll find all sorts of ways to use it.  Because if you’ve ever written an email about it, collaborated with other people on it, shared a file for it, or made a task list for it, chances are, it’d make a great Xtrant project!

Here are some non-project ideas of how to use Xtrant:

1. Taking and Sharing Notes: At a conference or meeting, each team member can take notes on a different speaker or topic directly into a single Xtrant Project for easy reference.  Use running notes for comments or questions about the meeting afterwards.

2. Brainstorming:  Make an Xtrant project where members of a team can jot down their ideas as they come, instead of keeping a notebook or sending an email.  By keeping the brainstorm on a single page, everyone stays in the loop, everyone’s voice is heard, and there is an easy-to-access idea archive.

3. Sharing News: Whether your team is researching a topic, or simply keeping up with relevant news, post links and upload articles in an Xtrant project.  Questions, comments, and insights are easily accessible, and displayed right next to the post.

4. Recurring Files/Tasks: Monthly reports, recurring tasks, anything that uses a repeating template can be stored on an Xtrant project.  Not only will your team have the blank template right at hand, but all the past projects are right there for your reference.

5. Event Coordinating: Milestones keep the team on track to get all tasks done on time, and team members know exactly who is responsible for what, and when and how things needs to get done.  Addresses, shopping lists, contacts, lists attendees and sponsors are all kept in one place, and last minute changes or questions are communicated to the team in real time.

6.  Education/Classes: Make a different project for each class, put all the due dates in at the beginning, and upload documents, articles and assignments.  Your work load has never been so organized and easy to access!

7. Problem Solving: Behind schedule?  Facing challenges with a team or a deadline?  Talk it out on Xtrant, which keeps track of the facts and helps everyone communicate openly, while remaining accountable to themselves, the team, and the project.

8. Information Archive: Have an Xtrant project that serves as an information archive or library.  By uploading documents and  notes, information is easy-to-access for your entire team, and never stuck in an email or file long forgotten.

9. Goal Tracking: Set goals and review them periodically.  Every quarter or every month, the team can review the goal-tracking Project and share ideas for staying on track, or address challenges that come up.

10. Responsibility Delineation: Sometimes it can be hard to keep track of who’s responsible for what.  Creating a Project that explains each teammate’s responsibilities helps keep them accountable, and lets people know where to go if they have a question or idea.  And, because a team’s responsibilities are constantly adapting, the project is easily updated and shared if there’s a change.

Shrödinger’s Elevator

therbligs_lgThe Xtrant offices reside on the 4th (and top) floor of our building – a converted cotton warehouse in downtown Memphis.  There are two elevators in our building – they are around the corner from one another.

The “New” elevator around the corner has an indicator of what floor it is on – on every floor.

The “Main” elevator only has an indicator on the lobby floor.

This has caused me (and many of the folks who work in our building) to adapt our behavior.  When we approach the elevators, we first check the “new” elevator to see if it’s on our floor.  If so – decision made – hit the button and ride it down.  We know that the elevator is already there waiting for us.

But if the “new” elevator indicates it’s on another floor we beeline to the “main” elevator and take our chances.  That main elevator is like Shrödinger’s cat. It exists in a cloud of probabilities that include the chance the elevator is waiting and ready behind those closed doors.  We know that we’ll have to wait for the new elevator, but we may not have to wait for the main elevator.  We’re adapting our behavior to favor efficiency.

To save time.

Time is the most precious commodity we humans have, and wasting time is literally robbing life from us.

What does that have to do with Xtrant and Productive Sharing?

Years ago we created the first version of Xtrant as the client extranet for Sposto Interactive. It stemmed from my pure HATRED of chores.  In this case keeping track of projects for various clients and the need to document and track and file and account.  We could have hired people to do those chores (i.e. middle managers), but instead we developed a software layer to sit between our clients and the team doing the work.

This gave us two benefits:

1. Communicating and sharing through the extranet created an automatic “paper trail” needed for accountability. No extra steps.

2. By not needing as much middle management we could hire more “billable” employees. (Writers, designers, developers, art directors and creative managers.)

There is value in the act of creation.  When that creative flow has to stop to document and organize for the benefit of others – or even for yourself, you lose some of that value.  Chores are necessary to prevent entropy, and to ensure accountability, but they are not part of the work product.

workchoresplay

Fewer chores mean more time for work AND play!

By streamlining workflow, and reducing the number of chores, you can get “more work” done and  get more life out of life. You can get more work done in less time, have more personal time to grow, think and recharge – and make “work” time all the more productive.

Communicating and sharing and managing your projects through Xtrant lets the chores happen organically.  It’s part of the process.

That’s the magic of Xtrant. That’s the power of productive sharing®.

 

Xtrant fits the bill for Memphis College of Art’s unique projects!

mca_smWe love getting to see Xtrant in action, morphing to fit the needs of our users’ unique projects,  so we just couldn’t wait to see the results when Memphis College of Art started using Xtrant!  Carrie Corbett, Director of College Communications had her interest piqued after hearing us give a presentation at MCA.  Now, Carrie says her whole department uses Xtrant “to utilize our time much more effectively, increasing our productivity and decreasing our stress level.”

We asked Carrie some questions to see how her team is using Xtrant for Productive Sharing:

What were the main points of frustration you faced before you started to using Xtrant?
The main points of frustration were getting input from multiple people on the design, and information on the various collateral pieces. We previously had to email people with the pieces attached and it was time consuming and unwieldy to have to go back through the email thread to find people’s comments or determine who had responded and who hadn’t. Also, I was the main point of contact, so if I was away from my office in at meeting, etc., there was no progress until I could come back and send out the email.

How has Xtrant specifically addressed those problems?
With Xtrant, we have the ability to designate all of the stakeholders for each project. We all get the email with the designs from our graphic designer at the same time and, if I am out of the office, there is no time lost on the project. We are able to communicate through the comments and I can see at a glance who has responded and who I still need to follow up with. It has really streamlined the entire process.

What are the top three features you love about Xtrant?
I love the ability to set up and manage multiple projects, each with their own set of stakeholders. I love the fact that you can upload so much information/graphics to each project. I love the comments so that we can have communication about the project.

What specific problems did Xtrant address that other institutions like yours might be able to relate to?
The field of marketing and communications is very fast-paced and loaded with deadlines. Xtrant has allowed us to utilize our time much more effectively, increasing our productivity and decreasing our stress level.

What is the single biggest reason you would recommend/why you love Xtrant? It streamlines our project process and makes my life much easier!

We’re delighted that Memphis College of Art is using Xtrant to collaborate more efficiently! What projects are you working on that are floundering because of friction, redundancy and miscommunication?

Try Xtrant Now

Putting the X in Xtrant (Really Google?)

We launched a new campaign for Xtrant.  Nothing big, just testing some creative – pushed it up on the Google display network (and through our re-targeting service, so yes – if you’ve visited Xtrant you might see these ads other places, thank big brother.)

Get Your Workflow OUT of your Inbox<– Here’s what the ads look like...we happen to have this stock photo of a young woman in glasses holding her head as if fighting a migraine.  It’s eye catching, and shouts “frustration” (or simply being fed up).

But for some reason the Google team wouldn’t approve the ad.  I inquired via email – and they responded quickly (good on Google) and ultimately approved the ads, albeit in a “limited” capacity.

This is what Google’s ad tool has to say about “Approved (Limited)”

Approved (limited) ads can show, but there are limitations to where or when they can show.

Why this happens: This often happens if your ad contains trademarked terms, or if you’re advertising certain products that can’t be advertised in certain places or situations, like gambling, alcohol, or prescription drugs.

Example: If you have a trademarked term in your ad, your ad may get an Approved (limited) status, because it can only show in limited regions per our Trademark policy.

NOW we’re confused.  Certainly we own the trademarks on both Xtrant® and Productive Sharing® and we’ve licensed the stock photo fair and square.  So we sent another inquiry…

Google’s reply (also very nice, good customer service.)

Having looked into the campaign, I consulted our Specialist team to review the ads on priority and received their response few hours ago. The image ads have been marked as Approved limited for exposed skin in the ad’s image and in the website. As per our Ads policy, Sensitive areas: shoulders and area between the underarm line and kneecaps, not including kneecaps should not be visible.

Yes, one can see her shoulders and collar bone. And apparently this is too much for some of Google’s media partners.  Here are the details of all the things that can cause an ad to be limited – ours falls under “Human Form and Contact”

So, is Google being sexists to flag this image?  Is the image actually inappropriate and somehow we aren’t seeing it?  Is there a large Mennonite (love the Mennonites, by the way) population online that would be offended by this?

What do you think? Is this Xtrant ad rated X?

 

Xtrant helps group convert “Rails to Trails” in Arkansas

Mason Ellis, Bret Budolfson and Lawson Baker leading the Southwest Trail.We love it when people use Xtrant to make things happen.  We especially love it when they use Xtrant to make cool things happen.

So it was really exciting when we met a small band of professionals from Little Rock, Arkansas who had a cool idea—and were using Xtrant to get big results.  As cycling enthusiasts, they have plans to construct a huge new biking trail.  This trail will be developed on 67 miles of abandoned railroad bed and will meander through beautiful Central Arkansan scenery and past historic sites and architecture, following the old Rock Island Line from Little Rock to Hot Springs.  Referring to themselves as the “501c3 Boys”, Lawson Baker, Brett Budolfson, and Mason Ellis see this as so much more than an upcycled railroad line.  It’s a way to grow connections between people and place, healthy bodies and healthy economies, a community’s history and its future.

When they took on this project, they realized they were going to need a very specific kind of tool to manage it on top of their already busy schedules.  According to Lawson, “Most large trail systems like this need to put together a 501c3 to get donations and have a place to organize funds.”  Realizing how challenging this can be, he added, “We needed different people to have access to different documents.  I didn’t want all the content being in ten different spots, and I didn’t want my email inbox bombarded with us talking about a project when we could see it in a different way.” 

That way was Xtrant.  With all the information compiled in one, easy to access project, these cyclists-turned-entrepreneurs coasted down a new, streamlined flow of productivity.  With each member of their team fully informed, they each work to advance the project without wasting time wading through emails, resending attachments, or repeating information.  They are making things happen faster and more efficiently.

The Southwest Trail Xtrant Project In Action

“When I first saw Xtrant, the main thing that I liked about it, and the reason I wanted to use it, was for aggregating content in one spot.“  Lawson said, “I knew at one point we were going to have lots of pictures of lots of stuff, and some of it would be on HIS computer and some of it would be on MY computer and we wanted it to be accessible to everyone, and I did not want a million email chains going back and forth.”

As they continue to handle fundraising, publicity, and write proposals for what’s being called the Southwest Trail, Xtrant is helping them stay accountable to each other, and focused on the next step.  Brett recommends it as a way to stay connected and get more accomplished:  “It works well for situations where you don’t have a project manager, per se.  We just have different people contributing to the project but no one is in charge of it.  So everyone can keep an eye on it, and that works well because we all have a busy schedule.”

This is Xtrant at its best: making an ambitious project not only possible, but straightforward, simple and exceptionally doable.

The Xtrant Project

This is a project page in Xtrant. It’s pretty simple.final_project_pageIt has five parts, Overview, People, Milestones, Shared Assets and Running Notes.  We’re going to talk about how each of them work right here, and show you how we built the project page you see in the sample above.

Overview
The overview is where you put the basic information about the project.  When you first create a project your are prompted to fill it out the following information:

  1. Project Number (generated by Xtrant)
  2. Project Name
  3. Short Description
  4. Due Date (optional)
  5. Company or Group Name (optional, great for associating a project with a particular client or organization)
  6. Reference Code (also optional, in case you have another tracking or numbering system you’d like to cross reference to)
  7. Project Specifications (again optional.)

overviewNotice that the overview edit screen is where you can remove a project (see the link to the right of the save button?)
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People
The people section is the list of individuals who have access to your project, if they aren’t on this list, they can’t see or collaborate on this project – the graphic below shows the steps in adding a new person to an Xtrant project.

  1. Type their name and click “Add a new contact”
  2. Type in their email address
  3. Select their permission level (Contributors can post and comment, Participants can only comment, Viewers can only look.)
  4. Choose if they can also add people to the project, and if they can see “Classified Content” (i.e. posed assets marked classified.)

addpersonYou will be auto-prompted to add people when you create a new project, or you can always click the PLUS next to the People label to add a new person anytime.

pendingsend
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Milestones
A simple list of tasks and deadlines for the project.  The start date and due date also show up in this list. Milestones consist of four elements:

  1. Date (optional)
  2. Task/Milestone Name
  3. Description (optional)
  4. Status (Pending, In Process or Done)

To add a new milestone click the PLUS (+) next to the milestone label. milestones
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Shared Assets
Shared Assets are posts and uploads that are important to your project.  These can be anything from digital files to web URLs/links to editable text documents and code snippets.  Only those you designate contributor may post in Shared Assets but both contributors and participants can comment on those posts.

In Shared Assets you can…

  • Drag and Drop Files to upload directly from your desktop.
  • Create a Document in Xtrant. XtrantDocs are simple text documents, and can be formatted, edited and printed directly within the app.
  • Post Code Snippets with line numbering and color coding for development teams.
  • Post URLs, Videos (Vimeo / YouTube) and Sound Cloud links.  URLs show a screenshot preview, Video and SoundCloud files  automatically embed in our viewer.
  • Upload Almost any File from PDF to DOC to CAD files and popular image formats (plus quite a few obscure file types.)  PDF, DOC, and XLS and even SWF files will show as an icon and can be previewed with our Google Docs integration.
  • Create GROUPS of assets….

To post assets click the green action links - or drag and drop files anywhere into the green box.When you upload an asset you will be shown an icon/thumbnail, the file name, and fields to name and describe the asset.

You can also make the asset “Classified” before you publish it (limiting access to only those on the project you’ve allowed to see classified content.)

To make an asset group just add more items – in the sample below we’ve added a URL and an Xtrant Document to make our group.

Diagram of Xtrant Shared Assets operation

Notice that the Xtrant Doc is marked as a “Living Document”.  This will allow any contributor on the project to edit it.

Xtrant Docs look like this when you initially make them:

Xtrant Doc ExampleOnce you’ve published your group it will look like this – only images, URLs and Videos will show as thumbnails.  All other docs will simply show a colored icon with the doc type.

Asset Group Published
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Running Notes
Running notes appear on the right side of your project page and serve as a contextual running record of comments or conversations pertaining to the work at hand.  Any project participant or contributor can add or comment on running notes.

runningnotesAll running notes become part of that project’s history and can be referred to without searching through old emails or other records.

Running notes are an efficient way to:

  • Start a Conversation, with the comments below it continuing the discussion.
  • Start a Brainstorm List, with each comment serving as a new idea or list item on that topic.
  • Notify Your Team of important appointments and changes.

I hope this helps, and for even more information on using Xtrant please visit our support site.

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