Communication and knowledge transfer represent the power behind today's small and midsize businesses (SMBs). Whether it's responding to customer inquiries or planning the next big product, small business operators need to collaborate both internally and externally to get things done.
The market for collaborative platforms continues to expand rapidly, with new players emerging and existing vendors releasing increasingly innovative offerings. If you're looking for a collaboration platform for your small business, start your research with this list. We scoured the marketplace and found 20 collaboration tools with robust feature sets that still fall within reach of small business budgets.
Figure 1: An intranet puts your company's knowledge in one easily searchable place.
We organized our 20 picks alphabetically within the four specialty functions typically found in a collaboration platform: Intranet, File Sharing, Video conferencing, and Communication Applications.
Collaboration Tools for Small Business
Small Business Intranet
Employees at even small businesses compile a staggering amount of knowledge, but keeping track of everything—filing it, finding it—can be overwhelming. Intranet platforms take all of that information and make it searchable. Achieving maximum efficiency means finding an intranet solution with a structure that fits your business's operational framework.
"Not every company has the same needs, and even within a company different groups might have different needs," explains Pankaj Taneja, marketing manager at HyperOffice, a collaboration solutions provider.
Create virtual workspaces in the Communifire platform for departments, project teams or any other group that will participate in the collaboration process. The platform provides extra flexibility by letting you disable features such as discussions and file sharing on a per-workspace basis, so teams have exactly the tools they need without any clutter.
Strong collaboration often breeds creativity when it comes to problem solving, and Interact facilitates that by providing a place for users to suggest, review and vote on new ideas.
Folders and subfolders within the Papyrs platform give SMBs a way to organize everything. A revision history is also available, along with email alerts when pages are changed or updated.
For SMBs with an affinity for WordPress, Simple Intranet provides a host of plugins to create an intranet solution that's customizable and intuitive.
Small Business File Sharing
Small businesses need a communications tool that lets them do more than simply attach a document to an email. That's where file sharing platforms shine. They let you share nearly any file type securely—often with multiple people reviewing and commenting simultaneously—all without clogging employees' inboxes.
Figure 2: Box lets you collaborate on nearly any type of file with coworkers, vendors and even customers.
And though collaboration is their main objective, many file sharing services are built with security in mind. SMBs can typically control access to sensitive data on a per-user and per-file basis while carefully monitoring when the most recent changes were made to specific documents.
Box makes sharing files with external partners easy while also ensuring tight security. An alert warns administrators if anyone adds a collaborator with a risky or questionable domain.
Dropbox offers SMB-friendly features including broad support for a multitude of mobile devices, and the ability to remotely wipe data on a lost device.
Egnyte's file sharing service features the flexibility to not only move some storage to the cloud, but also to identify which files are so sensitive that they should remain behind the company's firewall instead.
9. Google Drive
Compiling activity updates in one place leets you can keep track of who has edited each file. Businesses using Google Drive also don't need to worry about storage space—accounts with more than five users receive unlimited storage.
File sharing through OneDrive gives SMBs robust versioning functionality, including the ability to revert to previous versions of a file if necessary. Business accounts include Office Online.
Small Business Video Conferencing
Research released in early 2014 by the Global Business Travel Association found that the average business trip in the U.S. cost $540. That figure jumped to $1,100 for business trips that relied primarily on air travel rather than rental cars or rail options. Fortunately, face-to-face meetings don't have to be done in person anymore.
Figure 3: Video conferencing platforms bridge the miles and enhance real-time collaboration.
Whether in front of a computer at a coffee shop, sitting in a conference room at work, or waiting at the airport to board a flight home, today's crop of video conferencing solutions gives small businesses a real-time presence no matter where they're located. Many video conferencing systems enrich the collaboration experience by letting you share screens and other peripheral information with meeting participants.
11. Blue Jeans
In addition to supporting a vast array of mobile, desktop and room-based devices, Blue Jeans also lets you tie in other collaboration and productivity products, such as Google Hangouts and Microsoft Lync.
From individual devices to dedicated conference rooms, the Fuze platform connects small business employees in just about any setting. It can even connect to existing telepresence systems, eliminating the need for expensive upgrades.
In addition to offering HD-quality video conferencing, GoToMeeting also enables participants to dial in using either a traditional or VoIP phone, and to share their screen with other meeting attendees.
Good news for small businesses that don't need dedicated conferencing room hardware; Skype supports person-to-person and group video calls on most standard devices. People with paid subscriptions aren't limited to calling other Skype customers, either. They can also connect with mobile and landline phones.
You can view multiple video feeds and shared content side by side, and the WebEx platform gives you the option to share your entire screen—or just a specified application—with other participants.
Small Business Communication Applications
Email—as ubiquitous a collaboration program as you'll find—still reigns as a primary tool for connecting mobile workers, customers, vendors, and everyone else. Unfortunately, it isn't always as flexible as people would like.
"Email is great when you have a short-term communication," says Yves Schabes, president and co-founder of Chookka developer, LavaRipples. "One message and a few replies, or only a small number of people involved." As conversations become more complex, most email platforms fall short. Several new applications help fill those voids and give small businesses the horsepower they need to maximize communications.
Described as a "conversation platform," Chookka works with your existing email programs to turn messages into discussion threads. You can add and remove collaborators from the various conversations without losing the master thread.
Forget unwieldy email distribution lists and those reply-to-all messages that never end. Ginger neatly organizes communication threads for easy viewing, and you can access the platform from any browser.
Glip largely takes the place of the traditional inbox, letting you have conversations and track communications by project. You can also odd new messages to the system via email.
Channels, mentions and other features in Slack mirror many of the social media platforms that small businesses often use for communicating. Additional functionality comes from the ability to use both group and private messaging.
Messages and announcements flow through Yammer more freely and widely than in a conventional email application. You can search conversations, and even groups, which lets you find what you need very quickly.
Julie Knudson is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in technology magazines including BizTech, Processor, and For The Record. She has covered technology issues for publications in other industries, from foodservice to insurance, and she also writes a recurring column in Integrated Systems Contractor magazine.
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