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How to... collaborate effectively

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Article Sections

  1. First steps
  2. Issues to address at the beginning
  3. As you go along
  4. Useful communication tools

Useful communication tools

E-mail as a record

Everyone in your team should be using e-mail, but some people prefer to talk on the phone or face to face when there is a tricky issue to discuss.

If this happens, then make a brief e-mail record of important discussions or decisions taken during the conversation and send it to the people concerned. Then you all have a record of what's been said.

E-mail discussion and distribution lists

Investigate the best way to use these. They have great advantages. People can self administer them – so a large number of people don't have to maintain up to date address books. They will archive all correspondence so that you can look back at decisions and undertakings throughout the life of the project. They can be set to be private or public access.

You might like to use a public distribution (i.e. one way) list to disseminate your newsletter and a set of private discussion (i.e. all subscribers can participate) lists for team matters.


Teleconferencing (using telephones to bring together teams in distributed locations) can be a very powerful tool but it requires all participants to prepare carefully beforehand. This may turn out to be an advantage, since it is all too easy for people to attend face-to-face meetings without proper preparation.

You may find with teleconferencing, because there is a need for prior preparation and much less "off topic" discussion, that you can achieve in two hours what would have taken a whole day face to face. You can get some of the best of the both worlds by drawing together your participants in specific locations, so that you have seven people round a table talking into a phone in one city and three people in another city, etc.

If you are using a speaker phone on a meeting table then get a quiet room and the best quality telephone equipment you can – it makes a big difference to your remote audience if you have a high quality microphone and a big difference to your local audience if you have a high quality loudspeaker.

Our advice would be to book regular teleconference slots for the team and to hold them even if there seems to be little to say. Just getting them to submit a written progress report by e-mail prior to the meeting and briefly answering any questions on it will be very effective and may highlight issues of which the whole team was unaware.

The Web to share papers

The Web is a very effective medium for sharing up-to-date copies of working papers, agendas, minutes, etc. If you are holding a teleconference, the Web can be an invaluable aid.

Make sure that all participants have access to a networked computer as well as the telephone line – then you can call up key documents on screen without endless shuffling of different versions of paper documents.

Live "chat"

There are various electronic tools which simulate the ability to lean over your desk and make a comment or ask a question of the person next to you. The best known and most widely used of these is IRC – Internet Relay Chat. This enables ongoing conversations in real time without the delay of e-mail. It also tends to be more informal. Many researchers will have an IRC window open on their machine as they work and keep an eye on it in the same way that you might be available for occasional questions or comments from colleagues at a neighbouring desk.


As well as the newsletters designed for public consumption, there is great value in regular team newsletters, often distributed by e-mail but for large projects possibly done in a format suitable for printing (such as PDF). Getting people to contribute to these is always a struggle but it is worth the effort as it can be very good for team cohesiveness and morale. Get people to sign up to contributing so that they don't resent it when they are asked for contributions.

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