Useful and Free Online Tools for Groups and Business

When I first started as a full-time consultant in 1998, it was a pretty neat trick for most people to learn they could connect two or three computers together to share a single printer or plug in to this odd thing called the Internet through a special telephone modem. Today, only ten years later, it is nothing to teach a grandmother how she can use her iPhone to find nearby pizza for the grandkids. A surprising number of private clubs, neighborhood groups, non-profits and small businesses, though, are still conducting their meetings and distributing information the same way they did twenty years ago, which is a shame. From FaceBook to Yahoo to Google and more, there are many free Internet technologies that can make sharing information and working in small groups much easier.

Web 2.0 for Small Groups, Businesses and Neighbors

The phrase “web 2.0” (pronounced “web two-point-oh”) is often used to describe a variety of social networking sites such as MySpace, FaceBook and YouTube. The idea behind these sites is to create “affinity networks” of people online which can be used to more effectively sell advertising. Most of them are free, and most of them lose money. They do, however, provide simple and useful tools for small businesses, neighbors and other non-profit groups to collaborate and connect online. Think of them as sort of like a neighborhood bulletin board, where folks can post notes or find out what is going on.

There are literally hundreds of these web sites and networks around the world, but the three companies I feel are most useful to know about at the end of 2008 are Yahoo, Google and Facebook.

Small-Group Tools on Yahoo, Google and FaceBook

Most people know of Yahoo and Google as search engines and, for many users, they are a convenient sort of card catalog to an Internet library where all the books are on the floor. In the late 1990’s, however, both of these companies had greater visions and ambitions, which included the creation of “portal” sites which included such things as free online web-based email, calendaring and address books for anyone with Internet access. There were dozens of portal sites by 2000, but as part of this Internet strategy both Google and Yahoo created something called “groups.”

“Groups” were online web pages which users could create for their own use. The original Google groups were little more than snarfed content from the much older Usenet system for online discussions, but Yahoo encouraged a wide variety of organizations (such as hobby groups, churches and neighborhood organizations) to create their own online presence. Initially these were basic “bulletin board” systems where people could post and respond to each other, to exchange recipes or find tips on computer repair, pet care or stain removal. Such groups could be set to be public or private, and provided a variety of tools.

For this article, I’ll use examples related to grocery shopping and food systems, but the concepts can be applied to everything from a high-school reunion to a professional conference or disease-support group.

Useful Tools within Yahoo Groups

Participation in Yahoo groups currently requires a free “Yahoo ID” such as one creates when signing up for Yahoo mail or other free online services. Businesses can create free online listings, or example, but even groups without a form business can take advantage of Yahoo groups. These include a variety of public and private tools which can be made available only to members (by invitation) or published online for all the world to see, or some combination. Among these are
  • Online message boards where people can post items and responses
  • An online calendar, where events can be listed in various detail
  • A simple, central place to organize web links and graphics or photos
  • Online files, which can be set for automatic distribution to group members
  • Online databases, for storing information on people or other items
  • Online polls, to simplify tasks such as choosing a meeting time or location
  • Email distribution of discussions and reminders, based on personal preference

Back when it was the only game in town, this was a pretty amazing collection of options, but Google and FaceBook took similar ideas and extended them.

Useful Tools for Groups in FaceBook

FaceBook takes its name from the custom at private universities of publishing a book each year with pictures of incoming students. These books are a useful social tool and the idea behind the web site FaceBook is to make something like this available in the larger world. Individuals can sign up for a free FaceBook account and, once signed in, find a variety of online “friends” by name or area or interest. Because FaceBook was originally restricted to college students and faculty, it has tended to be a bit more restrained and tasteful than similar sites such as MySpace, and has expanded to include a variety of add-on programs within the web page which allows folks to do things such as organize games of Scrabble or “events” from public concerts to potluck dinners.

FaceBook also offers the option for individuals to create groups or post information about their events, organizations or businesses. Other FaceBook users can then “join” a group, become a “fan” of a performer, a “supporter” of a politician or “RSVP” to attend an event. Whether creating a page for a business, organization or cause, most FaceBook pages offer a number of options including

  • Basic information about the group, cause or business
  • The option for FaceBook users to join, become fans or supporters
  • A “wall” where people can post brief notes
  • A “feed” which users can subscribe to for status updates
  • “Discussions” which people can begin or respond to
  • “Albums” where people can post and tag pictures to share
  • “Events” where people can announce things with attendee options
  • “Videos” to publicize or document activities
  • “Notes” where pretty much any other text can be posted

Although FaceBook is primarily useful to people who already use the service, it is also one of the most consistent and consistently-used “web 2.0” sites out there, with a wide variety of users across geographic areas and age levels.

Google Groups, Google Apps and Google Docs for Collaboration

The eight-hundred-pound gorilla of the Internet in 2008 is clearly Google. Financed by advertising revenue and optimistic stockholders, Google has created online tools and a revenue model to rival Microsoft, which has been trying to play catch-up for years, and not succeeding. Among the more popular tools which Google makes available for free and which can be used by organizations are
  • Google Maps, which include the ability to tag, label and publish
  • Gmail, which provides powerful and free online, POP and IMAP mail
  • Google Calendar, which allows the creation of online calendars with reminders
  • Google Docs: a free, online version of Microsoft Office with sharing options
  • Google Pages: the option for free web-page creation and hosting
  • Google Groups: online and email discussions, with other options
  • Google Apps, which combine all of the above, and more, for collaboration

Each of these options could easily be an article in itself, but the most useful tools for small businesses and workgroups, in order of complexity, are Google Docs, Google Groups and Google Apps.

Google Documents for Small-Group Collaboration

One of the most maddening things about working in a small group is coordination, and the computer age has not necessarily made this simpler. Meetings need to be scheduled, agendas prepared, pictures shared, flyers created with lists and budgets maintained over time. Ideally all of this will happen smoothly, involving several people over weeks, months and years. The single best tool I have found for this is Google Docs (short for “documents”).

Google Docs is basically a free, online version of Microsoft Office, containing tools that will be familiar to anyone who has used programs such as Microsoft Word, Excel or PowerPoint within the past ten years. The difference is that the interface is a web browser (FireFox works best) and the documents are stored not on your computer, but online. This allows you to work with Google Docs from any Internet computer. More importantly, it allows you to share the documents with others, publish them for the world to see or collaborate by inviting others to edit or view the documents online. All that is required is to sign in with an email address and create a password associated with that email. Once so signed in, one can create and share documents with abandon.

Although they are stored online, Google docs can also be exported and saved to an individual computer, allowing anyone to create as many backup copies keep however many versions they wish. Because a single version is online and available at all times, this is (for many small groups) an ideal workflow.

One Sample Work-Flow for a Small Group in Google Docs

A simple work-flow for most small organizations might be as follows
  1. The president creates a Google document of upcoming meeting times to publish
  2. The treasurer creates a Google spreadsheet of their budget and current accounts to share
  3. The vice-president creates an agenda, giving collaborators the option to change
  4. The secretary takes minutes and then posts them for invited others to view
  5. The vice-president “erases” the previous agenda, keeping one document current
  6. The secretary creates a Google spreadsheet of current members, past meetings, etc
  7. Additional spreadsheets, documents and presentations are created for projects, as needed
  8. People can save copies to private machines, or these can be shared online by invitation

Because Google docs allows one to invite others as viewers, collaborators (who can make changes) and publish them as web pages, one document can serve many functions and then be made private again as needed. This precise “granularity” of control is astounding, and since it can be precisely mapped to individuals by email address, quite simple to implement among a wide variety of users. One need not be super-technical to use Google docs, but the power is there for those who wish to learn and use it.

As importantly, Google docs are free, requiring only a web browser and with almost no other software or hardware requirements, or hassles about viruses and who has what version of what document in what program and number.

A Sample Work-Flow Using Yahoo or Google Groups

A similar workflow can be used with Google and Yahoo Groups, with the added benefit of giving people the opportunity to take part based on their personal preferences using only a web browser or email. One must join such a group, but once a member, both systems allow the individual to choose whether to take part only through a web page, receive every update by email, or some variation such as a “daily digest” of activity on the group each day. In practice, I find that most organizations use both Yahoo and Google groups primarily through email, but another work flow might be something such as the following
  • A page or Yahoo Calendar can be posted listing all group activities or events
  • The secretary posts a message announcing upcoming meetings or events
  • The treasurer uploads the current budget to an area accessible only to members
  • The vice-president sends out a preliminary agenda for revisions and comments
  • The secretary takes minutes and immediately emails them to the entire group
  • Approved minutes and other documents can be stored online for member access
  • Yahoo groups allows quick polls of member preferences and online databases
  • Individual members have the option to save all emails or documents to their computer
  • People can save copies to private machines, or these can be shared online by invitation

Even more things are possible using Google Apps and other tools, but this is enough to whet your appetite. As a consultant with I have helped a variety of businesses and groups to use tools such as this more productively, reducing work and simplifying things for their officers, members and computer-using helpers.

Examples of Food Cooperatives and Buying Clubs Using This Technology

Below is a short list of links to a variety of buying clubs and/or food cooperatives who are using some of these tools.

For information on how you might be able to use such tools with your work life, group or business, please consider contacting at (360) 666-7679.

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