I’m a strong believer in every independent consultant needing a “hit by a bus” backup.  Of course, your backup / teammate also becomes your “go on a cruise” backup, “having a baby” backup, etc.  Of course, in a small team you and your teammates are probably going to be working on different projects at different times, and it’s not very feasible to have meetings on a daily or weekly basis to expect to bring your teammates up to date on everything you’re working on.  The solution is to put in place a really top-notch collaboration system that will allow you to store all of your team’s knowledge in a central place, capture a log of what you’re working on, etc.

A few years ago, we at Info et Cetera examined our various options for such a collaboration system.  Here were our requirements:

  • Flexible:  We wanted to be able to put ANYTHING into our collaboration system, without the system getting in the way.
  • Handwriting:  We wanted to be able to use Table PCs to capture our thoughts during meetings.
  • Centralized Storage:  We wanted one centralized and secure location where the data is stored.
  • Synchronization:  We wanted to have ALL of our data available to ALL of our team members.
  • Offline Access:  We wanted to be able to access our data even if we did not have Internet Access.
  • Cost Effectiveness:  Like most small businesses, we wanted to keep our costs low.
  • Security:  The information in this system is sensitive, and must be treated with the greatest care.

Version 1 of our Team Collaboration System — SharePoint

Our first attempt to fulfill these needs was using SharePoint.  Here are the results of our experience…

Positives of using SharePoint as our team collaboration solution:

  • SharePoint has a great mobile web interface that lets you view and modify lists.  This was nice for smartphone access.
  • Lists such as Calendars, Contacts, and Tasks can be synchronized with Outlook for offline access.
  • Great features around custom lists let you really create a wonderful per-customer portal.
  • Ability to create client extranets by inviting our customers to have access to their portals, paving the way to things like a customer / wiki and a per-customer issue tracking system.
  • For the most part, interaction with SharePoint is done via a web browser, which is nice because there is no client to install and you can access it from any computer with Internet access.

Negatives of using SharePoint as our team collaboration solution:

  • Backing up data from SharePoint can be difficult, though it is scriptable.  Realistically, you have to rely on your host doing good backups and being there for you in the case of an emergency.
  • In the case of hosting your SharePoint site with a third party, there are the usual third-party risk factors, including always the risk of downtime, fear that your host may cease to exist, and general issues around hosting your important data with a third party.
  • Beyond Calendars, Contacts, and Tasks, offline access to Custom Lists and Document Libraries is only possible through the use of third-party offline synchronization utilities, which add to the cost and complexity of the solution.
  • For the most part, interaction with SharePoint is done via a web browser, which can be sluggish and get in the way of working quickly / efficiently.

Other notes about using SharePoint as a team collaboration solution:

  • You must choose a host that offers SSL access (and blocks non-SSL access) to your SharePoint site.  Connecting to SharePoint via non-SSL is not secure enough for storing sensitive client information and puts you at risk of professional negligence.
  • Though you can certainly install SharePoint on your own machine running Windows Server, I wouldn’t recommend using it unless it’s via a host that implements a high level of redundancy.
  • It’s really worth picking a top-tier SharePoint host.  You can’t have downtime with a critical system like this, you have to be positive that it’s being backed up, and you need to have a host with a strong data security procedure.  My recommendation is Microsoft Online Services (gratuitous plug: Info et Cetera is a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner and can help you get set up on Microsoft Online Services).

We tried SharePoint for a while and really enjoyed many of the positives outlined above, but it didn’t quite satisfy all of our requirements.  The third-party risks were probably the biggest issue, followed right behind by offline access.  We also just wanted something that was simpler to manage and didn’t feel like a barrier to getting work done (management of the sites, creating new sites for clients, etc).  This led us to keep looking for a better solution.

Version 2 of our Team Collaboration System – OneNote

We ended up settling on a solution based on OneNote.

A quick overview of OneNote:

  • OneNote is a program included in certain SKU’s of Microsoft Office, or available separately.
  • The key to OneNote is that it is very flexible.  You can put in any type of content you want.  You can use a Table PC to handwrite notes, or a keyboard to type notes.  You can even use a microphone to record a meeting, which will then tie the audio to the notes you are writing or typing.  You can insert a picture if you want, or even an entire file.  If you copy and paste from your web browser, it will even notate the URL that the picture came from.  It even comes with a screenshot utility that can grab an image of a portion of the screen and put that onto a page.
  • OneNote has integration with Outlook if you want to tie together items such as Tasks to entries in OneNote.
  • OneNote has great searching capability.  It even performs Optical Character Recognition (OCR) on pictures you insert into a page, so your search results can find words within images you inserted.  This is nice for things like inserting a picture you took of a business card, and later being able to search for a person by name.
  • If you have a smartphone running Windows Mobile, there is a mobile version of OneNote that lets you take or read notes on the fly.  I wish the mobile version were a bit more feature-rich, but it is what it is.
  • OneNote has fantastic synchronization.  If your Notebook is located on a shared folder (i.e. a file share on a server), OneNote automatically caches a local copy of your notebook and will synchronize it continuously and transparently in the background.  The synchronization is the nicest of any program I’ve ever used.  Two people can add notes to the same page in a notebook at the same time, and OneNote figures it all out and synchronizes everything together.  In other words, OneNote has a very small level of atomicity, so it syncs notebooks on a page object level so that two people can simultaneously work on the same page in a notebook without fear of synchronization errors.
  • If you don’t have a server available to synchronize to, you can use SharePoint to act as the central repository for your information and then synchronize your data to that.
  • Your notebook is stored in a simple file system structure.  Section groups equate to folders, and Sections equate to files.  There is no heavy database associated with OneNote.  If you want to change where your central repository is, you can just cut and paste the files, then change where OneNote is pointing.
  • OneNote automatically creates backups on every w
    orkstation that is synchronizing to the central repository.  You can configure how many backups are retained.  So essentially, you end up with a distributed information backup system.

How we use OneNote as a team collaboration system:

  • We have a single OneNote Notebook that all of our team members have synchronized to their workstations.
  • In the Notebook, there is a Section Group for each customer.  A Section Group is a collection of Sections.
  • Within each Section Group, we have a Section for Reference information, and a Work Log section for each consultant who works on the project.
  • In the Reference section for each client, the first page always includes a narrative description of the client, including key personnel descriptions, contact information, directions to the facility if applicable, etc.  It’s basically everything one of our team members would need to quickly get up to speed on the client if he received an emergency call while the primary consultant was unavailable.
  • The Reference section also includes other pages to document infrastructure, systems, passwords, etc.
  • In the Work Log sections (separate ones for each team member), we create a new page for every day of work.  On the page we include a log of everything we did, any notes, include any files we may need later (e.g. database scripts we ran), etc.  If we go to a meeting, the meeting notes all go in there as well.  This is great for billing, or for going back later and referencing information.

Security:

  • The central repository for our information is a file share on a server that we control in a secure data center.
  • We connect to that server via a secure Virtual Private Network (VPN) to facilitate synchronization.
  • We use either folder-level encryption or (even better) BitLocker whole-drive encryption on any of our systems that hold a cached copy of our OneNote notebooks.

So we’ve lost a few things by using OneNote instead of SharePoint, such as the client extranet aspect, but the reality is that we can still use SharePoint to create those things.  But for day-to-day note taking, nothing has been able to top OneNote.  We can each work the way we’re comfortable working (handwriting, keyboard, etc), we can embed small files if necessary, and it has fantastic synchronization that is both fast and nonintrusive.

In Conclusion…

I hope that this post has been helpful for helping you think about (1) the need for a team even in independent consulting, (2) the need for a team collaboration system, and (3) some idea for how you might go about implementing a rock-solid and efficient solution.

Read more posts from John R. Pattison about Independent Consulting