A Small Business Guide to Online Collaboration Tools

Wednesday Dec 23rd 2009 by Gerry Blackwell
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While the right collaboration tools can help small businesses be more efficient and productive, sifting through the tangle of options available can be a daunting task. Our buyers’ guide has what you need to know to get the job done.

Online collaboration tools that let you work with far-flung co-workers and clients have moved into the mainstream of small business computing in the last few years. And while most small business owners understand why they should be using Web, audio and video conferencing, document sharing, white boarding, etc., many need help choosing which tools to use.

“There are so many options now, it’s hard to weed through them all,” says David Corcoran, president of Batipi Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in helping small and medium businesses select and implement collaboration solutions.

You won’t find many one-size-fits-all, omnibus solutions. HyperOffice is about the only one that even attempts to be everything to everybody, Corcoran says. (HyperOffice is about to launch a completely revamped version of its service aimed at small businesses.)

“What we’ve found is that having the best-of-breed product suited to clients’ specific needs is more effective [than an all-in-one solution],” he says.

Sorting Through the Options

Corcoran identifies several distinct types of software-as-a-service (SaaS) tools that help enable online collaboration.

  • Audio and video conferencing servicesSkype is the most familiar, but there are many — use the Internet to bridge participants together and carry voice and video.
  • Web conferencing solutions such as Cisco’s WebEx and Citrix GoToMeeting allow participants to join an online meeting to view presentations or collaborate on computer-based work. Some also allow you to conduct online seminars, or webinars.
  • E-mail collaboration solutions such as Google’s Gmail let distributed work forces use the same online mail service, and may offer presence and instant messaging as well.
  • Document sharing tools — Google with its Google Apps, for example — provide a central online repository for documents, with mechanisms for determining who can view and/or edit them. Document creation tools allow groups to mark up or — rarer — directly edit documents online during a meeting.

Aaron Hay, a research manager at Info-Tech Research Group, a high-tech research and consulting firm, adds another important category: white boarding and brainstorming solutions such as Twiddla and MindMeister. They allow groups to meet online for free-form brainstorming sessions and to record resulting notes and diagrams.

There is much overlap among these categories. Google Apps and Gmail work tightly together, for example. Skype now allows some application sharing. GoToMeeting includes audio conferencing. And so on.

Robin Good (a.k.a. Luigi Canali De Rossi), the Italian-based publisher of Kolabora, an international e-zine devoted to online collaboration, has developed a mind map that shows scores of products and services in more than 20 categories and sub-categories.

Identifying Your Collaboration Needs

The first step in the selection process, Corcoran and Hay agree, is to identify your specific requirements. What are the pain points? Where are the bottle necks in your employees’ interactions with colleagues, partners, suppliers, customers? That will determine the type of tool or tools you need. (Good’s mind map shows the range of what’s available.)

If you have one or two pain points – say you need to set up brainstorming sessions within a distributed work team — chances are you will find free or very low-cost tools to relieve them, Hay says. Skype for the audio portion, for example, and a tool such as Twiddla for white boarding.

“On the other hand, if they identify three or four pain points,” Hay says, “there’s a good chance they will have to pay.”

Corcoran estimates his clients pay somewhere between $5 and $25 per user per month for online collaboration. Not all vendors charge by the user or the month, though. In some cases, it’s a yearly subscription, in others it’s a subscription for an unlimited number of users.

Pre-screen the Collaboration Candidates

Requirements and preferences are specific enough to each company and task that once you’ve identified a sub-category of tool, you will ultimately need to get your hands dirty testing to find the best one for you. But it’s possible to eliminate many with pre-screening.

“You can usually tell right away if it’s a fly-by-night operator,” Hay says. One test: if the company only offers payment by PayPal, be skeptical. PayPal is a good option for a vendor to offer, he hastens to point out, but there should be multiple options, including standard credit card payment.

“One thing you want to see [from a vendor] is a consistent track record of updating and keeping their product current,” Corcoran says. The best service providers are also responsive to user suggestions for improvements or fixes.

Check to see if the company has online user forums, the level of activity at those forums and evidence of positive interactions between vendor and subscribers. The absence of forums or sparseness of activity at them, especially recently, should send up red flags, Corcoran says.

Customer Support Options

Be sure to take a close look at how the company provides customer support. You ideally want to see the option to phone a support agent. Next best is online chat. If the vendor only offers e-mail, be skeptical — there is a risk it won’t be very responsive.

Also look at how a vendor helps new customers get up and running. Higher-end vendors may offer on-site training or, as in the case of Google, a community of partners such as Batipi to help.

“When you’re rolling out a new collaborative solution, you want to make sure everybody in your organization is on board,” Corcoran says. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be that they give three hours of on-site training. That’s often not possible. But do they offer webinars and recorded demonstrations?”

While it’s not a deal-breaker, you should downgrade a vendor that insists on annual or multi-year, rather than monthly, subscriptions. “The pressure to sign multi-year contracts is really not the point of what new Web 2.0 collaborative tools are all about,” Corcoran says.

There are exceptions. Google offers only yearly subscriptions for its Google Apps — but it charges only $50 per user per year.

And while it’s not necessarily a clincher, it is definitely a good sign if the vendor offers an API (application programming interface) or some other mechanism that lets users or developers to integrate the service with other online or in-house applications or to extend it with third-party add-ons. “You don’t want to feel as if you’re stuck in a dead end,” Corcoran says.

Hands-on Testing

Pre-screening will eliminate much of the garbage, but there are lots of credible — or seemingly credible — products out there, and as Hay says, “The tools around collaboration are in state of flux. There is a flurry of development in this area right now.”

While you don’t need a request for proposal (RFP) or formal user-acceptance testing, you will need to test multiple products to find one that’s right. Hay suggests testing “several” in each category you’re considering. One approach is to assign different groups of employees to trial different products, and then compare notes.

Most service providers offer free trials. If they don’t, Hay recommends that you ask if they will give you one. Failing that, subscribe to the service for a month — most are cheap enough.

“You will know pretty quickly if it’s shoddy,” says Hays. “We discarded the first eight we tried within the first two minutes of logging on [to trial accounts]. A lot of companies are coming up with stuff that’s just a joke. So before you push out three or four for more in-depth testing, you can whittle it down pretty quickly.”

How to Evaluate Collaboration Tools

When testing short-list candidates, the first thing to look for is ease of use. Can you learn it yourself and train others in a few minutes? If not, chances are employees simply won’t use it, which defeats the whole purpose.

But usability is only one consideration. In the longer term, does it have the features and functionality to fully satisfy the original requirements?  If it doesn’t, employees may start off using it happily, but lose interest when they discover its shortcomings. This is why Hay recommends giving each of the leading contenders at least a month of testing.

When Info-Tech went looking for an online document editing solution, for example, it found a few that let online meeting participants mark up and comment on a document. But it turned out almost all of them required someone to manually copy changes from a meeting transcript to the document, a cumbersome and seemingly needless process.

In the end, Hay found a little-advertised Microsoft utility called SharedView that lets a group directly create or edit and then save a document. The catch: it only works with Microsoft Office 2003 or 2007.

One of the great appeals of SaaS solutions is that they work cross-platform, allowing Mac, Windows PC and Linux users to share and collaborate. All they need typically is a browser with the right version of Flash and Java.

So a single-platform solution such as SharedView is a compromise. But such is the nature of a product category that is, as Hay says, still in flux.

The Bottom Line

You likely won’t find one integrated solution to do everything you want. And you likely will find a huge number of products with a confusing array of overlapping features and functions. Finding the ideal solution will take some careful research and sifting.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte.

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