Best software or websites to manage my small company
September 29, 2013 12:53 PM   Subscribe

First of all, if there are better places on the internet where I should ask these types of questions about project and company management, please let me know. You guys are awesome, but I have plenty of other types of questions I'd like to ask in here, and, plus, I need to find the best source for answers to specific questions like this and fast. I need the proper technological solution for managing the flow of tasks and information of an entire company. The company is about 20 people in the office (half of them engineers) and about the same in the fab shop, so it's small. I am not the owner, but the oft-ignored second-in-command. See my other questions (here and here) for more details about my specific working situation. Right now, the company can only be described as chaotic. We have taken probably on probably too much work, people (especially me) aren't aware of what others are doing, collaboration takes place in inefficient bursts in the conference room, and the massive amount of information we generate per job and in the rest of the business is never easily found when needed. The owner causes a lot of these problems with his capricious style of running the business and tends to only add to the entropy, but I think that centralization of information and communication may save it before it's too late. I need the proper tool or tools to do this. I'll discuss where I am thus far, and we can go from there.

To me, this seems to have fallen into two categories: file management and task/discussion management. We generate and accrue a lot of information here, both for jobs and for the other aspects of the business. This includes technical drawings, calculations, vendor quotes and POs, contracts with our customers and vendors, equipment data and manuals, materials data required for our ASME pressure vessel stamp, etc. I have a small NAS that I use as a server that some people use to share and backup data, but most don't. It's cumbersome to set permissions on it, so I can’t get too complex with it. Files are typically emailed around and reside on peoples’s hard drives, even when I encourage people to use the NAS. We have terrible file dispersal problems, whereas I’d like to consolidate everything in one place.

For all the file management, I've been looking at cloud services like Dropbox (wonderful for personal, useless for business) and Box (purports to be great for business, but I have a few concerns and keep getting different answers from people there). Ideally, I’d like a cloud place where everybody stores everything. There would be folders for individual jobs where everyone working on the job would dump their info as quickly as possible as well as folders for quotes, Accounting, the shop, etc. I would probably go through later and sort it more effectively at the beginning until it takes care of itself, but I want that info in the “box” ASAP so we don’t lose it (which happens constantly).

I love Dropbox’s simple syncing folder, but their insistence on everyone being able to edit and delete everything is worthless for business and flat out insane in my opinion unless you trust everyone you share with 110%. Box has permissions, but I’ve gotten flaky answers about whether they’re strictly top-down or if they’ve added granular permissions recently. Egnyte, which I know the least about, boasts that it absolutely has granular permissions, which is why it’s better than Box. I’ve grown on the idea of having a comments page for each file online with Box, because I’d love to be able to carry on a multi-person discussion about a particular drawing or simulation file as it is revised. Dropbox (for a totally-worth-it extra fee) saves unlimited separate revisions of a file every time I save. Great backup option. Box claims to save 50-100 of the past revisions, and I have conflicting info on whether anybody with Editor status can delete those past revisions. You need Editor status just to add and change files in a folder. I absolutely only want the Administrator (me) to be able to delete past revisions of files. (We’ve dealt with disgruntled ex-employees before, so I get fearful.) I know I need a proper backup system in house, but if it’s going to have to be too complex to keep watch on the cloud, I’ve actually INCREASED the amount of work I have to do. Right now, I’m leaning towards Box, and I’m open to comments on it, its competitors, and my idea in general.

The other side of the coin is that I need a way to collaborate on a task, project, whatever that is also centralized (preferably also with permissions on who can see what). Right now, my boss/dad tells the other employees what to do verbally or occasionally by email. Almost invariably, I have an opinion on any matter based on my experience that might either contradict him or add some additional detail. A ton of these important issues are never communicated to me, though, and once a $100,000+ purchase order has been made without my knowledge, usually the best I can do is just cuss loudly and without heed to who hears me. Also, once he tells somebody something, they go off and it’s hard to get updates from them. He claims he’s the only one who can manage everything (dead wrong). He neither has the time, nor the management mindset to do it. In addition, we just lack the necessary talent in our staff right now, so he and I have to review just about everything as a check. Of course, I can’t review things I’m not told about. I also give a lot of instructions to people myself, and without any

What I envision is some way of creating a task or discussion, probably as part of a bigger project structure (though maybe not), where everybody involved updates their progress and discusses problems and solutions. It could be like a comments page for that task or idea, or maybe a full-on message board. For example, say someone is working on a process simulation. They comment on their choices in the simulation and others can comment back. Maybe the actual file resides there where the discussion takes place, or maybe not. We have an ongoing record of people’s thoughts and directions. It’s maybe slightly more cumbersome than just walking down the hall to someone’s office, but the advantages are that it would out there for everyone necessary to see, and you wouldn’t have to rely on your brain and a few scribbled notes to remember what was discussed.

On both side of the coin, it may be desirable to also let our customers get in on the discussions or view the files. They would need severely limited permissions: no file editing of any sort and very specific places they could go. It could be more efficient than email, though, in certain cases.

As I have said in the past, I am neither an IT pro, nor a PM pro. I’m a frazzled engineer, who sees mostly chaos around him. I desire a system or systems that makes file accountability easy and that provide a central place to discuss and keep a history of discussion about just about anything that needs discussing. The whole business is basically one big project that I think can benefit from PM tools. I need to be spending most of my time engineering, so I’m looking for low-maintenance options that keep me in the loop. If it works, I want the entire business (which does not intend to grow too much in terms of people) to run this way.

I’d appreciate any and all thoughts on the matter. Thank you.
posted by KinoAndHermes to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've worked at your company. I'm sorry.

I don't have any specific recommendations, but I think what you need isn't a technology solution. You need buy in from your father/partner. If he doesn't, no matter how good the solutions are, they will never be embraced. No one is going to want to change, and have to believe This Is How It's Done from henceforth, with penalties, or they won't do it. Thus the reason you need buy in.

I would also suggest that instead of trying to figure this out on your own, find a company that outsources IT for small businesses. They're used to fixing this kind of chaos, and will be able to walk you through the various issues and help when you hit stumbling blocks. Plus, if you're hiring a company to get this implemented, it will be taken more seriously. Dish out cash for something, and it's worth something. Right now you're the guy telling everyone how everything is done wrong and being ignored because their way "works".

Also consider that being the owner's son, I bet you're seen as a bit of a tool and someone that doesn't understand conditions 'on the ground' along with having your role as a result of being the owners son, not based on qualifications. While that likely isn't true, that won't change that you aren't being taken seriously. Being part owner doesn't matter, especially if your the forgotten 2nd in command. Use an IT team to add weight to your changes. You're paying money for that shit, of course it means more then anything you'd come up with! (even if it's exactly the same thing).

But 100% buy in from dad is paramount. If you can't get that, decide if you can live with the chaos, or get thee self out of there and be a silent partner. I've seen this story before, and it really will only cause you pain if you continue down this path.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 1:20 PM on September 29, 2013


For one of your previous questions, let me suggest you look for a Gantt Chart. Android does have apps for this.

I will second that you need to get on the same page with dad. Let me suggest you read "Getting to Yes" and "The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator." You cannot make your dad do anything but you can decide you have had enough and let him know that you need x, y, and z to happen or you are out of there. Be very prepared to leave before you have this conversation. This cannot be a bluff. Given that your account of things implies he sees you as useless, you may find that he sees no reason to cooperate.

But continue to research the technical piece for now. It will help if you show up with solutions when you go talk to dad. I recommend sticking with familiar technology and software. Think about the fact that the qwerty keyboard is inefficient but has staying power because it is what millions of people have been trained on. It is hard to teach old dogs new tricks.

It might help to try simple solutions like email lists for different projects. You will probably never get everyone on the same page but you will get more cooperation if you try to use familiar software and not ask people to learn a bunch of new stuff. Ask people to send you everything via email at the end of the day. Then at least you will have copies in one central place. It will be a mess but it will be a step in the right direction.

I worked at BigCo. I felt this wasn't really a solved problem there either though I think it was less of a mess than you describe. I was there a bit over five years and we were on our third information management system. About the time folks figured out how to use the system, they decided to improve it again. Ugh. Don't do that. Development of human capital and processes is very expensive. Find something "good enough" and stick with it. Maybe tweak it, but don't toss it out and start over every two years.
posted by Michele in California at 1:50 PM on September 29, 2013


[insert clever name here]: Yeah, I kind of expected this answer. I appreciate that somebody understands. I'll talk to our accountant and CPA and see what it would take to buy in. In reality, I'm not seen as a tool or unqualified by the others...I think. In fact, it's quite the opposite, but I am not seen very much, period, because I spend much of my time in my room trying to get the right answers to screwed-up situations. I'm probably seen as Mr. Negative, though, because I'm the only one with the balls to say no in any situation.

I'll look into the IT company idea. I already have one that keeps calling me anyways. That being said, I'm still open to suggestions for software/cloudware from anyone on the original question. I might find something that makes my life easier in some other way. I might just end up as a project manager, either here or somewhere else, so I could use the tool suggestions.

Heh, I kinda wish you and I could exchange a few stories, since it's very hard to find someone who understands situations like this. I may MeMail you sometime if that's alright with you.
posted by KinoAndHermes at 1:54 PM on September 29, 2013


file management and task/discussion management.

I know your company is a special snowflake but these requirements are not. Project Management Software is a pretty mature and varied offering these days. I like TeamworkPM.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:06 PM on September 29, 2013


pm.stackexchange.com is where you want to ask project management questions.
posted by Dansaman at 2:37 PM on September 29, 2013


We use Podio for collaboration.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:56 PM on September 29, 2013


First, you've got to get buy-in from the owner of the company. Once that's done, I'm going to go the very traditional route here and recommend a small business IT consulting firm, Windows Server 2012 R2 and Office 365 (cloud office, e-mail, SharePoint).

File management

Windows Server gets you a directory service, where everyone has a company logon. Permissions are easily managed on the server based on the person's login or group membership. PCs (or Macs, etc.) save all documents to the server. The server is backed up, which means your data is backed up. The server is local, so access is fast. (You could do this as a cloud virtual machine, but it would be slow).

Box, Google Drive, etc. are great, but as you've seen, they start to break down when you try to collaborate at any sort of scale. A single Windows Server will support thousands of users, in thousands of groups with many thousands of files.

There would be folders for individual jobs where everyone working on the job would dump their info as quickly as possible as well as folders for quotes, Accounting, the shop, etc. I would probably go through later and sort it more effectively at the beginning until it takes care of itself, but I want that info in the “box” ASAP so we don’t lose it (which happens constantly).

The file server does all of that.

task/discussion management

Office 365 (and specifically SharePoint online) does this well, but it requires some time investment/training/consulting dollars on your end. Users logon with the same logons as your local network uses.

On both side of the coin, it may be desirable to also let our customers get in on the discussions or view the files. They would need severely limited permissions: no file editing of any sort and very specific places they could go. It could be more efficient than email, though, in certain cases.

You can do this with SharePoint in Office 365, but as I understand it, you've got to pay for an Enterprise plan to do granular permissions.

Dropbox (for a totally-worth-it extra fee) saves unlimited separate revisions of a file every time I save. Great backup option. The other side of the coin is that I need a way to collaborate on a task, project, whatever that is also centralized (preferably also with permissions on who can see what).

I believe SharePoint Online does file versioning out of the box. (I'm more familiar with the on-premise version). It does the permissions you describe out of the box.

What I envision is some way of creating a task or discussion, probably as part of a bigger project structure (though maybe not), where everybody involved updates their progress and discusses problems and solutions.


SharePoint has discussion forums built-in.

Maybe the actual file resides there where the discussion takes place, or maybe not.

In SharePoint, you can put a file in a document library, then start a discussion, and link to the file in the library. This sounds complex, but it isn't. It's largely the same as something like Ask.Mefi if you linked to an external file.

Office 365 also gets you Microsoft Office and company email for everyone in the office. (I know you can logon with OS X, but I'm not sure if Office 365 includes OS X licenses or not.

Without getting into a hideous amount of detail, SharePoint requires you to build sites from things like task lists, document libraries, discussion boards, calendars, contact lists, web pages, blogs, photo galleries, etc. It's not a ready-to-go project solution like 43 folders. It's a general tool where you (in an easy WYSIWYG web-based tool) pick the components you want to build the site. It DOES require some forethought and time investment to be useful. It's more useful as a collaboration tool that stores files than a pure file storage tool (which is where your Windows Server 2012 R2 file server comes in).

Note that you can host SharePoint on-site, but I wouldn't recommend it without a full time IT person.

Again, you need organizational buy-in, because this is a big organizational change. Once you've done that, find yourself a small business IT consulting firm. They'll come in to talk to you for free. Tell them what you told us and ask them about a Windows Server, Office 365 and SharePoint Online.
posted by cnc at 3:01 PM on September 30, 2013


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