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7/1/2011
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How Social Tools Support Project Management

Teambox manages projects from product development to wedding planning from the status line, with the option to assign tasks on the fly.

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When Teambox created its system for managing projects from the status line, it might have had Tony Tiedemann in mind.

"I'd always wanted a system that would tell what's going on at a moment's notice," said the founder and CEO of Tiedemann Globe Inc. in Phoenix. With a core business in exporting used clothing, plus several ancillary businesses such as renewable energy, the company expects to hit $20 million in revenues this year, and Tiedemann is often on the road looking for opportunities to expand. While traveling, he signs into Teambox regularly to review the stream of activity and comments from his executive team and employees.

"I need to be able to take a glimpse of the company from wherever I'm at, and this works because it's set up like a social networking kind of thing. I can scroll back over the last couple of days and know what's going on," Tiedemann said. "I don't want to have face-to-face meetings that are status updates--all that can be done through Teambox."

Teambox is one of several project management tools adopting the activity stream as the anchor of their project dashboards. Teambox is not focused on any specific methodology (unlike Sprintr, which is built around Agile concepts). And although it's possible to see a Gantt chart view of resources and timelines, that's secondary to the social organization of projects.

Getting work done is "more about people communicating and collaborating than it is about stringent project management rules," Karl Goldfield, vice president of sales and marketing for Teambox, said in an interview. Tools built around managing individual projects miss out on providing the overview needed by people participating in multiple projects with overlapping timelines, he said.

Rather than grafting an activity stream onto an existing product, Teambox built a project management system around its understanding of what makes social networks work, Goldfield said. The idea is to embrace spontaneous social collaboration while also making the activity stream "actionable," he said.

For example, instead of posting comments you can post tasks and assign them to another user. Conversations and tasks can be associated with projects, allowing users to toggle between an overview or just the items associated with a given project. Version 3.0 of the software as a service product added the ability to use social "@ references" to tag other users who ought to be included in a conversation that they had not previously subscribed to. The update also supports the creation of private projects and discussions, for which access might be limited to a manager and his direct reports. The tool also includes wiki-style document management, and Teambox now integrates with Google Docs so that documents can be shared with an entire project team rather than on a per-user basis.

Teambox does not necessarily want to enter the competition to own your activity stream and will be looking for opportunities to integrate with other products, Goldfield said. Although Teambox might be the only internal social business tool for a small business, it also coexists with products like Yammer, he said. Goldfield also sees opportunities to integrate with products like ZenDesk or even Basecamp, a Web 2.0 project management tool from 37signals that could be considered a direct competitor.

Although Teambox can be used to manage software projects, that's not necessarily its focus. "There are things you can do that are agile, like documenting quickly on wiki pages. But we're thinking less about the developer than the sales consultant, the reporter, the PR firm, the contractor, or the wedding planner," Goldfield said. Wedding planners have turned into a significant small business constituency because "it's perfectly frightening how many people they work with," he said.

Tiedemann uses Teambox to manage general business activities and to document how problems are solved. "It's not just the snapshot status update, it's also our product management, our tasks, and our old conversations. For example, recently we had an issue where all of a sudden absenteeism was way up. Steps to eliminate it were taken, and now we have that" as a recorded solution, he said. "We never would have had that before--it would have been stuck in someone's email somewhere."

Tiedemann Globe currently tracks about 60 projects through the tool, he said.

Before he discovered Teambox, Tiedemann said he tried several other web-based tools, including Google Tasks, some of the 37signals products, and Google Wave. Toodledo was "very close" to what he was looking for, but Teambox does a better job of continually improving its product, he said.

To institutionalize Teambox use in the company, Tiedemann Globe developed its own training course that goes deeper than the tutorials Teambox provides, and employees have to pass a test to show they understand it. Because he relies on Teambox to give him an accurate overview of activity within the company, Tiedemann said he didn't want to rely on people adopting it of their own accord. "We make it clear that Teambox is part of us, and we show examples of how we use it, how the company can use it. That gets rid of any resistance," he said.

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