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Using online project management software to collaborate with dispersed, cross-functional teams

April 29, 2009

Basecamp is an online project management tool our team at (add)ventures uses to collaborate internally and with clients.  In general, we work in small cross-functional teams that are built around each project, and my role tends to be as project manager, editor, and writer for the projects where Basecamp is really handy.

Particularly since our team is not only cross-functional but spread out across our three locations – Providence, Miami, and Estonia – it is important to have clear expectations, task assignments, deadlines, and the ability to easily share files and keep messages all in one central location tied to the project.

Almost a year ago, we launched an internal newsletter with a client of ours for a specific segment of their employee base. We worked with them to define the vision of the publication, establish a voice, select the types and tone of content, and establish an editorial calendar and production schedule for both the print and online versions.  Then, each month, we work with a team of subject matter experts and operations and communications folks on the client side and writers, designers, production folks, interactive gurus, an editor and a project/relationship manager on our side.

We start by setting up an individual project within our Basecamp account, assigning it to our client’s company, and giving it a name that fits our internal conventions and makes sense to everyone working on the project.  Then we can select from all of the people we work with within their team those individuals who are part of the newsletter project.  Each of them can get varying degrees of permissions, from being notified and able to see everything that is going on to getting just specific bits of information that apply to them.  Then we select the members of our team who work on the project and give them the right permission to see it, too.

After the project is set up, the first step for the project manager/editor is to assign milestones, or no-compromise deadlines for key phases of the project to ensure that it is completed and delivered for printing and visible online on time. Basecamp allows us to establish owners for these milestones and to also put smaller tasks within them, creating a checklist of sorts that can be made up items as simple as “Contact subject matter experts to interview for feature story.”

The system allows members of the team to exchange messages that are sent to the selected recipients’ email addresses as registered in Basecamp, and these messages also stay within the space created for the project for easy reference or if people are viewing their email from multiple locations.

The writeboard feature is great for collaboratively editing and approving copy, as it automatically saves the newest version on top, eliminating confusion about which is the most current version when multiple people are reviewing it and making changes.

As the project nears completion, we begin to share draft versions with members of the team, starting internally and keeping the files “private” and then sharing with the project owner on the client side and finally with the final decisionmaker who signs off with final approval.   Like with the Writeboard, the most recent version of the files is always on top, eliminating confusion, and the system allows for messaging about changes as the files are uploaded or within the messaging feature.

When the final deadline is upon us and the inevitable stress of approvals is taking its toll, Basecamp significantly reduces the level of reminding and nagging a project manager needs to do.  It makes deadlines more objective through their placement on a calendar and provides automatic updates and reminders as key milestones approach.

This tool has allowed my team to effectively collaborate on a successful internal communications vehicle for nearly a year now, and because we are able to streamline the process and focus on the content, each edition is better than the one before.

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