For many of us who live and work on the web, playing with the latest and greatest new tools just comes with the territory. I find this constant tool jumping fun and exhilarating; however, not everyone that we need to work with wants to have to learn a new tool in order to collaborate with us online. Sometimes simple “old school” tools, like IRC and mailing lists, can work just as well as, if not better than, the new tools. If nothing else, people are comfortable with tools that they know and have used many times before.
My full-time corporate gig is as a community manager for an open-source developer community. The community mainly comprises no-nonsense, no-frills people who love some old school tools. The fancy graphical environments in the latest and greatest collaboration web apps just get in the way of power user developers who know every trick in the book to get the most out of tools like IRC and mailing lists. Keep in mind that open source communities tend to have people — from corporate developers to passionate enthusiasts — collaborating across the globe in every time zone to develop software that we use every day. They know a thing or two about collaboration, and they use the tools that work. I had stepped away from hardcore developer communities for a couple of years when I was consulting, and in coming back to these established tools, I’m rediscovering why they are so useful for collaboration.
IRC / Group Chat
The best thing about IRC or Group Chat is that you can set up a place for your team or your project where people can drop in and out to ask questions or just have conversations with other people working on similar projects. It’s kind of like the water cooler, if you want to get even more old school, where people gather to talk about both work and social topics. Because it’s real-time chat, you can get quick feedback even when you don’t know exactly who to talk to because you are reaching out to a group of people with similar interests or similar jobs.
Lately, we’ve also been holding quite a few scheduled meetings in IRC, and it is a great way to get a lot accomplished very quickly. By scheduling it, you make sure that you have the right people available and anyone can participate as long as they can get some type of internet connection. We also make the logs available, and we use MeetBot to capture minutes of the meeting. This allows people to miss the meeting, but still see a full, unfiltered record of the meeting in the logs along with a summary of the meeting from MeetBot if they just want the highlights.
By mailing lists I mean both traditional mailing lists, like LISTSERV, or more recent additions like Google Groups. The fact that I love mailing lists is a bit odd, since I hate email. Part of what I love about mailing lists is the control that you have over how you receive the information. Most lists allow you to get every email immediately, or in a daily digest depending on how you prefer to interact with the list, and many of them allow you to turn the email off entirely when you go out on vacation. That way, your email doesn’t pile up, but you can skim through the online archives when you get back to catch up on the big news. Regular email just doesn’t have that flexibility.
The reality is that everyone uses email, and mailing lists are a great way to collaborate with a group of people without accidentally leaving anyone out of the loop. It’s too easy to forget to copy every person on the team when communicating with a group of people. The online archives are also a great way for new members to learn about the project and get a sense for the history of the group, and it gives you a place where you can always look back at the conversations when you forget some important detail.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the new tools, too. I get a tremendous amount of value out of tools like Twitter and the newer collaboration suites that have social networking and plenty of bells and whistles built-in. However, sometimes you just need something quick and cheap that just works. Just because a technology is old doesn’t mean it can’t rock.
What are your favorite “old school” collaboration tools?