A Guide to Online Collaboration Software

by Gerry Blackwell

Does your small business use an online collaboration suite? We look at the benefits of collaboration software and how to select one to fit your needs.

Working at Home

There are close to 25 million small businesses in the U.S. alone, and that group is extraordinarily diverse in terms of industries, numbers of employees and their day-to-day activities. There is a common thread, however. "The one thing everybody in every small business does all day is collaborate," said small business technology analyst Laurie McCabe of the SMB Group.

It’s true. We all spend our days talking to and working with colleagues, suppliers, partners, customers. "If you can streamline that process, make it easier for people to collaborate, that’s obviously a good thing," said McCabe.

Which is why the SMB Group believes small businesses should consider using low-cost online collaboration products and services, especially integrated collaboration suites such as those from Zoho, IBM (LotusLive), and most recently, Microsoft (Office 365 – currently in public beta).

Online collaboration is by no means a new concept, but it has been evolving rapidly in the last few years, with new products and services popping up on a regular basis and new features continually being added to established products.

Heavy Hitters Finally Get Collaboration

Big-league players such as IBM, Microsoft, VMware with its Zimbra internal collaboration server product and Cisco, with a similarly architectural approach to collaboration in the enterprise, are all relative late-comers to this market.

Online collaboration software was pioneered by smaller start-ups such as Zoho and BaseCamp, which makes a project management-oriented collaboration suite, and by pure Internet companies such as Google (Google Apps, Google Cloud Connect). And the products initially appealed mainly to small and medium businesses.

HyperOffice online collaboration software
HyperOffice online collaboration software

"There was a time when those big players were not that interested in the cloud," noted Jacqueline Lawson, a small business consultant with Cozzas.com, a Zoho specialist. Those days are clearly long gone.

As Lawson pointed out, 500 million Facebook users, a growing number of them businesses looking to make connections with customers, have helped make the cloud the place to be, and they attract big players.

Social and Mobile Trends in Online Collaboration

One key online collaboration trend in recent months is the integration of social media -- either by importing streams from existing social media services such as Facebook and Twitter, or by adding social media-like features.

SalesForce.com, for example, previously known mainly as an online customer relationship management (CRM) service but now increasingly positioning itself as a collaboration vendor, last year introduced Chatter, a collaboration tool with social media features.

LotusLive also has a social media "look and feel," McCabe noted. IBM refers to LotusLive Symphony as "a set of social collaboration tools in the cloud." (Symphony lets distributed teams work together online on documents, spreadsheets and presentations.)

The other key trend is the extension of online collaboration into the mobile realm. Chatter, Zoho and LotusLive, for example, all offer mobile apps that let iPhone, iPad and other tablet and smartphone users participate in meetings and projects.

Expanding and Securing Collaboration

Many online collaboration tools have also gradually improved by adding features that small businesses said they needed. More of these tools now make it easy to include outside participants -- partners, suppliers, contractors -- in the collaboration process.

Last year when the SMB Group looked at online collaboration service providers, only a couple had that mechanism in place, McCabe said. Now several do. "It’s really important for small businesses because, for a lot of what they do, they need to collaborate with others outside their firm."

Making it easier to bring on temporary team members to help with projects may even be a key driver for adopting online collaboration, Lawson suggested.

"Now you can have qualified team members anywhere in the world, and all they need is a laptop, an Internet connection, a user ID and password, and they can collaborate with you on a project," she said.

Another area where small businesses have concerns about online collaboration services is security, Lawson said. Some vendors have beefed up security while others, she said, have made it easier for users to back up cloud data to their own premises or with a third-party online storage provider.

Crowded Collaboration Options

For small businesses contemplating adopting a collaboration solution, though, the market can still be daunting. For one thing, online collaboration means different things to different people. Which flavor do you need?

The collaboration tools available encompass a range of not-always-related activities, for example informal information exchanges over email or instant messaging (IM), composing and editing documents using file sharing tools (e.g. LotusLive Symphony), online meetings (e.g. Cisco’s WebEx) and centralized online project management (e.g. BaseCamp).

Virtually every small business already uses some kind of online collaboration, even if it’s only email, IM, Web conferencing or a desktop teleconferencing tool for meetings. But suites that combine and integrate a number of collaborative functions offer obvious benefits.

The Case for Collaboration Suites

"When you have a suite of applications that is designed in such a way that you can easily get to what you want with one click in the same screen, that’s just going to be more productive than having to click away to a completely different program," said Lawson.

McCabe argued that using a collaboration suite rather than individual "point" products can help eliminate problems such as version conflicts when a distributed team works on a document or presentation. Or when communication falters because emails go astray or phone call notes don't show up with other information about a project.

"There are a lot of bottlenecks when you’re using a bunch of point products," she said. "Things get disconnected."

Almost any small business, can benefit from online collaboration tools, certainly any that works on discreet projects, McCabe believes, especially (but not only) if they need to be able to bring distributed teams together.

"In general when a business gets to a certain size, it starts to have more need for something like this," she said. "When it’s just you and a cofounder, you can usually keep all the balls up in the air without much difficulty."

Problems start to crop up quickly though once you add more people to the mix. "Things can get ugly in a hurry when you don’t have a more streamlined way to collaborate," said McCabe. "There can be a lot of wasted time and energy, and you make mistakes."

Microsoft Office 365 online collaboration software
Microsoft Office 365 online collaboration software

How to Choose an Online Collaboration Suite

The challenge, McCabe said, is that small businesses get stuck in a rut with the single-function products they’re accustomed to. "It’s very hard when you’re doing 20 million things at once to slow down and even think about, ‘Gee, maybe it would be great to integrate these functions.’"

If you do have time to slow down and think about the possibility, what should you look for in an integrated online collaboration solution?

The integrated suites are definitely not all created equal. "It’s not like they all have these six same things," McCabe says. There are real differences.

Always start with what your needs are, she said, where your pain points are. If your main need, for example, is for help managing projects that involve collaborative production of documents, you might want to look at project management-oriented suites such as HyperOffice or Goplan.

If your company is heavily into using social media to market itself, you’ll want to look for a solution that integrates that kind of functionality, McCabe said -- "rather than one with a more traditional email interface."

Most small and medium businesses, according to a survey the SMB Group conducted last year, were looking at one of four leading vendors: Zoho, IBM, Google or Microsoft.

That’s if they were considering an integrated suite at all. It’s not clear how much traction this kind of product has gained, McCabe said. Her firm hopes to find out with another survey this summer involving more than 700 small and medium businesses.

Calculating the Collaboration Cost

In the meantime, what can you expect to pay for an integrated online collaboration solution? Not a lot, McCabe said. Some vendors let you use their services for free if you’re an independent or only have a few users.

"And when you do start paying, you’re talking single digit to low double digit [dollars] per user, per month," she said.

Lawson said her small firm, with six people, pays about $100 a month for a complete suite of products, but it’s also possible with Zoho to only pay only for the modules you need.

And with any of these products, it’s possible to try before you buy. Get other employees and colleagues involved in the process, McCabe said. "Then when it comes time to have your users 'buy in,' you already have people kind of excited and interested."

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This article was originally published on Thursday May 5th 2011
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