Small Business Guide to Social Collaboration Tools

Thursday Aug 2nd 2012 by Pam Baker
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Collaboration with employees and vendors takes more than Facebook and instant messaging. We look at better ways to handle social collaboration, and most of these options offer free versions.

Small businesses have many advantages over the big guys, not the least of which are speed and agility. Social collaboration tools are a natural fit to magnify these advantages, but big competitors can use them to speed their efforts, too. It is imperative, then, to use these tools post haste. The good news is that most of these tools are also available in a free version.

The bad news is that "social collaboration" goes from buzzword to buzz-kill almost immediately, because confusion sets in, borne of vague definitions and a slew of widely different product choices. It's hard to discern a clear path forward.

"Collaboration tools encompass a wide range of solutions, and different people think of different things when they hear that phrase," said Scott Allison, CEO of startup Teamly, a SaaS workplace performance management tool. "So, simple and well-known tools tend to win out."

And that's exactly what has happened at most SMBs when it comes to social media tools. Today, thousands of small businesses collaborate with employees, vendors and/or customers almost exclusively over Facebook. According to the Small Business Social Media Survey conducted by Webs last month, "two thirds of small business owners use Facebook."

Yammer, a social collaboration tool

Figure 1: Here's a sample of what a profile page looks like on Yammer.

"Once SMBs find something that works, it's very hard to convince them to switch," said Allison. "It's very common for SMBs to be using out-of-date operating systems, hardware and, of course, software too."

While using outdated hardware and software is a serious security threat and a productivity drain on your business, using Facebook to collaborate with employees, advisors and vendors is arguably more so. A Wired article, which details last month's Facebook settlement, points out a continued pattern of abuse: "In November, the Federal Trade Commission slapped Facebook's hand to settle government charges it 'deceived' users that their information would be kept private, although it was 'repeatedly' shared with the public."

So sticking with Facebook for the purposes of collaboration, rather than confining it to marketing and customer service, can be a serious mistake since you're basically broadcasting all your company secrets.

But Facebook isn't the only social medium that can create a hazard to your operation. The ever-popular document sharing app, Dropbox, poses serious security concerns, too, and a breach occurred as recently as a few days ago.

Given the frequency of such problems, it is important to stay abreast of security alerts, use the right tools for each collaborative event, and be willing to switch apps as soon as something better comes along.

Breaking Down Social Collaboration

"Social collaboration is a fairly complex problem and is, by far, the most diverse and least homogeneous of all business software categories," explained Balachandar Ganesh, who heads research at Credii, a Web startup that aims to solve the problem of business software selection for SMBs via its "Yelp-on-steroids" approach. "There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach, largely because vendors tackle the collaboration problem from different angles."

He says that broadly speaking, three different categories of social collaboration software that are particularly relevant to small businesses: people-centric, task-centric and file-centric.

Although, he adds, there are at least a few apps that cross-over the three, namely:

"Central Desktop, Thoughtfarmer, Huddle, BlueKiwi, eTouch, and Siteforum in particular have a fairly strong installed base in SMBs," said Ganesh.

People-centric Collaboration Category

This group of tools is popularly known as "Facebook for the enterprise."

"That is because this category of social collaboration tools aims to promote spontaneous, non-mandated knowledge exchange between people in the form of status updates, comments, wikis, microblogs etc," said Ganesh. "This can either be internal, organization-focused or external, partner- or customer-focused."

Top tools in this category:

Task-centric Collaboration Category

The offerings from this category of tools include shared workspaces, shared whiteboards, collaborative project- and task-management software, and shared computer screens.

"Task-centric collaboration tools aim to replace the email and spreadsheet combination, which has, up until now, served as the de-facto channel for different stakeholders in a small business to communicate, relay, track project status, and share updates," explained Ganesh.

Top tools in this category:

File-centric Collaboration Category

"File-centric collaboration software offers either synchronous (real-time) or asynchronous environments for people to collaboratively author documents, manage, share, review, and comment on them," Ganesh said.

Top tools in this category:

Social Collaboration: The Why Behind the What

Everyone in business is collaborating with someone, somewhere to get any given project done. Social collaboration tools simply help you do whatever you're already doing in a much faster, easier way.

For example, "small business owners rarely write their business plans alone," said Mike Duncan, product evangelist at Palo Alto Software. "They might collaborate with a business partner, an instructor or an advisor of sorts, or even friends or family. The problem is that, more often than not, these people aren't in the same place. Needless to say, when you have to go out of your way to work on something together, it's much less likely to get done."

But the need for collaboration extends far beyond simply putting together a business plan. You can use collaboration to your advantage in everything from innovation, invention, design, marketing plans, accounting and finance, company and role reorganization, managing your supply chain and your warehousing, and a zillion other tasks.

"We are creating a new market for bionic exoskeletons and breaking new ground," explained Karl Gudmundsson, vice president of marketing at Ekso Bionics. "Our team has tripled in size over the last 18 months. With that kind of growth we have found MindJet to be an invaluable tool to communicate with confidence and clarity what our goals are, what our strategy is and where our emphasis lies."

Jive, a social collaboration tool

Figure 2: This screen shot show's how to get started using Jive, a social collaboration tool for small business.

ut not every small business will like or need the same tools -- nor should you adopt a tool on its popularity alone. Instead, try several before you settle on one.

"One of my favorite social collaboration tools is Google Cloud Connect for Microsoft Office (GCC)," said Terence Kam, the founder of eStrategyPro.com, an Internet Business Strategy Consultancy.

"GCC is a plug-in for Microsoft Office 2003/2007/2010 that lets me share and edit Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents simultaneously with other people in my team," he added. "With GCC, I get the collaboration benefits of Google Docs, while still using Microsoft Office, which is the best of both worlds for offline editing and syncing when online."

Checking comparison services, such as Best Vendor, let you narrow the selection of tools you want to consider by reviewing a larger collection of comments and ratings from actual users.

"Our users rate Atlassian's Confluence as their favorite collaboration software," said Eric Metelka, a marketing manager with BestVendor. "They like it because everything on it is fully searchable, social, and easy to administer. A new mobile app called MYCO Suite is moving up our ranks. It stands out by offering CRM, project-management, billing, and document sharing tools all in one iOS app."

Just be careful not too get carried away with all the cool features you find, and instead focus on which tools will actually do the job you want to do. But also remember to fight the urge to stick with one tool. Mix them as needed to fit specific project demands and replace any that develop a marked security weakness.

"Social collaboration is not just about replacing email or sharing a document; it's about moving business ahead, solving problems and making strategic decisions," said Holly Simmons, senior director of marketing for SAP's cloud collaboration and analytics products.

Pam Baker has written for numerous leading publications including, Institutional Investor magazine, CIO.com, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, the NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!
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