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Online Collaboration Tools

Online Collaboration Platforms

Also known as Collaborative Workspaces.
This is an incomplete page. It would be great if you wanted to help improve it! Go ahead! Contribute!

Brief Description:

Online collaboration platforms is a general "catch all" term to describe a range of internet based tools that allow people to do things together online. This may include online conversations in forums and email lists, co-creation of documents on wikis, file sharing and storing, etc. There are other pages in the KS Toolkit that go into greater detail about these tools. This page gives a brief overview.
Wikipedia defines "collaborative workspaces" (16 April 2008):
"A collaborative workspace or shared workspace is an inter-connected environment in which all the participants in dispersed locations can access and interact with each other just as inside a single entity. The environment may be supported by electronic communications and groupware which enable participants to overcome space and time differentials..."


Online collaboration platforms predate the world wide web and the intranet. They first emerged when the US military created ARPANET for collaboration between scientists and universities. PLATO, developed by students at the University of Illinois, was probably the first platform to include discussion forums (1973) followed by the Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES) in 1977 specifically designed to support online group work.

When to use:

  • When a group of people (co located or distributed) need a centralized online space to: plan, share documents, track work, discuss and otherwise interact with each other.
  • This can be in the context of teams, projects, learning and other applications.
  • planning in virtual teams
  • task implementation monitoring in virtual teams
  • joint editing in virtual teams
  • group updates in virtual teams

How to use:

A collaborative workspace for development may require software with specific features, e.g.:
- Low bandwidth
Low bandwidth facilitates use by partners in the South
- Absence of "branding" or advertising
A workspace for users in a variety of countries and/or in the South as well as the North should not be identified with a particular government and it should not carry intrusive or excessive advertising.
- Email functionality
Due to technological limitations for some users, it is desirable that certain functions, e.g. uploading of files, be possible by email attachment.
- Ease of programming

Tips and Lessons Learnt

(add yours)

Examples & Stories

  • "With CIARIS of the ILO we developed something from scratch and the story is here: (presented to an event in CPsquare). The idea was to have a Library into which you can publish documents from groups working in their own "workspace". Each workspace has its own wikis, members' blog, forums, calendar, and file space. The Library and workspace blogs are public whereas the workspace areas are private to the members of the group. Files uploaded into a workspace and wikis can be "made public" at which stage they go through a categorisation process and appear in the Library depending on their categorisation. If your knowledge community falls under the general umbrella of "social inclusion" you might want to register in CIARIS (it's easy and free -, explore it and create a workspace for your group there." - Bev Trayner
  • Leadership for a New Era Collaborative Research Initiative: Launched by the Leadership Learning Community – a national nonprofit organization focused on transforming the way leadership development is conceived, conducted and evaluated – the initiative focuses on understanding how leadership can become more inclusive, networked and collective. We believe the dominant model that places a strong emphasis on the individual is limiting our ability to positively impact change in our society, so we have joined forces with a diverse group of funders, researchers, practitioners and consultants in the leadership development field to make sense of what it would take to start shifting the current thinking. Using the WetPaint platform (free tool), we developed a wiki-based, collaborative website to support the work, which combines wikis, member profiles, discussion forums, videos, and more.

From KM4Dev Discussions:

1. Process recommendations: how to choose IT tools for virtual teams (see “6 step procedure” in Further information)
Start by asking people what tools they are familiar with or already use; experience with different tools from one or more team members may provide a capacity building opportunity to share that expertise ("go where people are now, use the expertise in the group and limit introducing too many new things at once").
Virtual teams have 4 core challenges for which they may need IT support:
  1. Coordinate work on shared projects (project tracking and management with attention to interrelated tasks and tracking milestones, evaluation, etc.)
  2. Share information (ongoing, sharing of links, materials, contacts, etc.)
  3. Think together - help w/ questions, problems, opportunities, ideas etc - using their group mind!
  4. Stay "whole" as a team - relationship, trust, the big and small communications that go into weaving the group into a whole, with both attention to the leader's role, and everyone's role!
Have the teams analyze at which of the 4 core challenges they are good at, and where they are weak => target new specific tools to the weaknesses (standard tools like email, phone etc. works for the strengths). The more diversity in the group the simpler the tools have to be. If you want to engage everyone, you need to accommodate the people with the most restricted access, limited bandwidth & least familiarity. Will (motivation) & skill (capability - including physical bandwidth) both have to be taken into account. Be alert to time zone issue => this will influence the choice of tools (synchronous or asynchronous work). Trying to sell people the full package, when they currently just need one element, risks overwhelming them.

2. Tool recommendations
  • Email, MS Office and phone
Everybody knows how to use them. If it does the job then it's the right tech! Working with word: Have folders for different versions of files and have a systematic file naming convention.
  • Google Apps
Google docs for planning and joint editing => see for tips on joint editing; the different Google tools are not well integrated with each other. A combination Google docs/skype conference call can be used for planning, minute-taking and follow-up of virtual team meetings, see detailed description under T4-2 at
  • Google wave
Great mpromises, but still in beta. Currently slow and buggy, no gateway to email (thanks to un unknown mentor who provided me with a free invitation to test;
  • Teleconference tools
Skype (, VOIP buster ( and Google Talk ( These tools allow you to enter a group conversation. If you use a webcam you can see each other. Skype also has a chat feature, which can be used to track the conversation. As in a regular meeting, how the process is facilitated is most important. Skype chat is good for quick updates and also works asynchronous.
  • Chat tools
Yahoo messenger ( , MSN ( , Gabbly ( , Meebo ( With these tools you can exchange messages via text, one on one or in a group. You can see who is online and then send a quick message. It is easy for short lines of communication: even a little tune, hear what someone is doing. Use of these tools during the work gives a sense of togetherness and cooperation.
  • Collaboration suites
Collaboration suites are a collection of multiple basic collaborative tools that teams need to work together - document management, project management, email wikis, shared calendars etc. The approach here is that there is no one right tool for team collaboration, and teams are more productive if they have all their tools in a single place. Google Apps (, Office 365 ( and HyperOffice ( are examples.
  • Wiki tools
PBwiki ( , mediawiki ( , Wikispaces ( ) and Wetpaint ( A wiki is ideal if you want to work together on a document or keep track of an issue where you work with each other. When using a wiki it is nice if someone from the team feels responsible for the structure of the wiki. Wiki-based tools work great for people who like non-linear thinking and who are a bit more used to working with web-based tools.
  • Discussion forums
Google Groups (, Yahoo groups (, dgroups ( as email based groups or ning ( as an example of an online forum that is not based on email. A discussion forum can be used for asynchronous discussions. So you can post messages on an online forum and later read what your team-mates say. With email group everyone gets all posts by email. The advantage over "normal" email traffic is that there is an online archive (searchable).
  • Project management tools
Base Camp ( or Foldera ( Project management tools are designed to support virtual team work on a project. There are features like a calendar, a to-do list, a message board, milestone tracking etc. There is also the possibility to share documents. It may be useful as a central online place for the team and can act as a 'virtual office'.
  • Social book marking
Delicious ( , Magnolia ( or Furl ( These tools allow you to use the Internet as a place to store and share your bookmarks. It works like the list of "favorites" on your own computer. Social book makes your favorites also visible to others. You can categorize bookmarks by 'tags' related to the topics your team is working on.
  • RSS feed readers
bloglines ( , personalized google pages ( Pageflakes ( Via a RSS feed reader, you can keep track of new messages to sites with an RSS feed. Usually you get to see the title, and you can click for more information. If the team uses a blog for example, the RSS feed reader makes sure you do not miss a blog post.
  • Free Online Surveys online questionnaires , Survey Monkey ( Want to know how various team members think on a particular aspect of the project? You can easily compile an online questionnaire and send it to the team. The results are often well organized and graphically displayed.
  • Meeting Planner
( , event planner ( and Doodle ( With all the different calendars making appointments is often a huge task. There are web tools that make the process a lot easier. Someone chooses a number of suitable dates, other team members indicate which dates suit them.
  • Screen sharing tools
Unyte ( or Vyew ( A screen sharing tool lets you share your computer with someone else at the other end of the world. This would allow you to show your team how to use certain tools, or how the presentation for tomorrow looks like. Useful with a tool like skype teleconference
  • Huddle
Dropbox for file sharing, see WebIDEAPro (KS software developed by Applied Intelligence Atelier, central desktop zoho (interesting alternative to Google Apps)

A web platform for socially writing database Q/A apps that explain their answers.

3.Feasibility reflections
Frequent problems with tools include: a)Time constraints (no time to learn to use new tools => exclusion from group) b)Login (password forgotten or login does not work => exclusion from group) c)Company firewall (connection with web based tools not possible => exclusion from group) d)Low bandwidth (transfer of data is slow => costly, time consuming, participation in certain venues like video conferences not possible) e)Unfamiliarity (when operated, tools do not perform as expected by user => frustration, time loss, data loss) f)Multiple versions (especially with wiki-type tools, where overview is not quite obvious => several people start working on the same issue without realizing there is duplication)

6 Step Procedure: Tools for Virtual Teams (by Joitske Hulsebosch and Sibrenne Wagenaar)
1. Start with familiar tools. Exchange of experiences from team members with online tools. Take the time to make up the proposed tools to view or use a "uitprobeerweek. This time investment promotes understanding of each others experiences and preferences online and pay back later.
2. Select tools with the entire team. After jointly explore possible tools to make choices than the entire team. Also make arrangements to use the tools (eg how often you log in?, Which cc you on emails?).
3. Create a culture of experimentation. By an example, you can create a culture within the team is experimenting with tools accepted. This makes the threshold for team members to try something less and make 'mistakes' or 'clumsy' accepted. It prevents withdrawal from the process by fear of unknown technology.
4. Provide a helpdesk. Provide adequate guidance in the use of new tools by frequently to offer support. The helpdesk can own or another team member with specific experience in one tool.
5. Introduce tools step-by-step. Ensure less experienced team members not to experience stress and uncertainty by many new tools. Team members themselves to identify ways of cooperation to search online, you can start offering a new tool. For example, the team wonders how they quickly display short, urgent ask questions, you can propose an instant message / chat tool to use (see box 1).
6. Monitor the individual change. Working with new online tools brings with it a different routine. Team members are not accustomed to such open chat as they work, to direct a question to propose to a colleague. Pay attention to this by now and then the way of working together to discuss. Look for active contact with the project team members to hear the experiences.


A number of platforms are in use to support collaborative workspaces for development. Chief among these are the following:
Communities of Practice for Local Government
Only available to users in the UK. May be of interest for the features that are included.

“dgCommunities is a collaborative space for professionals working to reduce poverty and promote sustainable development worldwide. Share knowledge, tools, contacts, and more with members in 200 countries. Each online community is centered on specific themes and guided by experts in the field. Thousands of information resource links are included, plus valuable member services.”
(From the website)
Denise Senmartin reported in an email to the KM4Dev listserv:
“Another platform to consider is the Development Gateway dgCommunities. You can contact them to ask about having a private closed dgCommunity for your specific team. I used to work with them so know that were migrating to an open source CMS that will add functionality to the already existing ones (posting of content, discussion forums, uploading your profile, news and events, automatic alerts, etc). However there are costs as you need to cover the technical maintenance costs.”

Developed by Bellanet in 2002, DGroups may be the first platform designed with the development community in mind. There are currently 2000+ groups and 100,000+ users. DGroups is free to users and avoids "branding" and the use of advertising.
The organizations behind Dgroups have formed the Dgroups Partnership. Current partners include Bellanet, DFID, Hivos, ICA, ICCO, IICD, OneWorld, UNAIDS and WorldBank. Member organizations include CGIAR, CIDA, CTA, Danida, FAO, IDRC, INASP, KIT, SNV, Sida, SDC, and UNECA.

ECS (Electronic Collaborative Services)
Developed by WA Research SA (Switzerland) and used by WHO, UNAIDS, UNHCR, SADC, HDNet, etc.
It is available to other organizations. I can provide contacts upon request.
I have not been able to view ECS, but it was developed to support collaborative work on the web, including work with researchers in the South.

Eldis Communities
Users may subscribe at no charge and participate in a number of groups. They may also create their own groups, which may be open to all other members or only to persons authorized by the creator. This is in beta version.

Global Facilitation Network for Security Sector Reform (GFN-SSR)
“The Global Facilitation Network for Security Sector Reform (GFN-SSR) is funded by the UK Government's Global Conflict Prevention Pool (GCPP), a collaborative initiative of three UK government departments: the Department for International Development (DFID), the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).” “…the website houses a number of restricted access webgroups. These are all targeted at a different audience and designed to allow users to upload documents/information, find contact details and talk/blog online in a secure environment.”
(From the website)

Google Groups
GoogleGroups is not intended specifically for the development community, but it is free to user and advertising is relatively "light".
From Steve Song, in an email to this list:
“Doubtless GoogleGroups is known to you. In terms of ease-of-use it is without peer in terms of a combined mailing-list and web environment. However, you do have to tolerate some text advertising. Also, if you privacy is an issue for your group, Google Groups may not be the best choice.”

“Groups of people use Nexo to do more online: • Create Web sites and email lists • Share pictures, videos, files and Web favorites • Have discussions • Create shared calendars and vote on activities”
(From the website)
Commercial but apparently free to user.

“OpenSourceHost is a specialized hosting company focused on providing quality web space and support for php/mysql open source software systems. This includes, but is not limited to, content management systems, bulletin boards, photo galleries, blogs, e-learning systems, etc.”
(From the website)
Steve Song commented, in an email to this list:
“For about USD70 per year, you can set up a domain and they will install a combination of Wordpress/Mediawiki/Mailman for you that will do pretty much all you describe. It will require more work on your side to customise it to suit your group but it has worked very well for me. You can see a very simple example at which was set up for a workshop.”

“As the first wiki company, Socialtext is the leader in making web collaboration secure, scalable and easy to use. A Socialtext wiki is a secure, group-editable website. Instead of sending emails and attachments, Socialtext customers use private web pages to work together.”
(From the website)
Basically a fee-based, commercial service, but they offer a free trial version.

Tomoye’s Simplify
Simplify is a Tomoye product that is in the process of being replaced by Ecco. The respondent is unsure whether the latter will have all of the critical functionality available in Simplify. The respondent reports that their version has been highly customized.
The product has a toggle between low-bandwidth and high-bandwidth versions. It also has fully integrated web page and email interface. This is a commercial product.

Who can tell me more?

(add your name/contact email)

Related Methods / Tools / Practices


  • See the KM4Dev wiki page on Tools for Virtual Projects
  • The book “Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities” by Wenger, White and Smith
  • CPsquare project that tries to dig into some 50+ different collaboration tools (and some combinations of tools). The idea is to dig a little deeper into the characteristics, strengths and weaknesses of all the different tools that are out there):
  • A “full package” of tools for the WASH sector by IRC (presented in the discussion by Jaap Pels), including master account, wiki, social network, search & navigation, mail list, forums, blog, twitter and ways to interlink the different tools; see:
  • Joitske Hulsebosch and Sibrenne Wagenaar have written a most interesting article on virtual teams and tools for virtual teams. In Dutch. The “google translate” English version (easily readable) is in the km4dev dgroups archive (November 26th 2009)
  • E-learning modules on “Web 2.0 and Social Media for Development (2009)” and “Building Electronic Communities and Networks (2005)”, both on
  • More comprehensive list of tools: