We're All in This Together

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted November 01, 2000
by Steve Bennett

With so many organizations using wireless products to replace the office environment while employees are on the road or telecommuting, it is a constant struggle to coordinate meetings and deadlines with staff. When a document needs to be edited and approved by three people in three different time zones, accomplishing the task in a timely fashion can be impossible. Electronic collaboration used to be the privilege of large companies with intranets. Now, due to a variety of Web-based offerings, small companies only need Internet access to enjoy software tools that can be used internally as well as with customers and clients.

For a monthly fee, small businesses can take advantage of "virtual intranets" and sites that provide advanced information-sharing tools. In fact, it seems that new offerings crop up almost every week, each with its own configuration of features and functions. Some even offer no-charge, ad-supported versions, with the option of paying for ad-free or premium services. Whatever the need or budget, it's possible to find a site that's well-suited to your company.

FACTOR IN THE LEARNING CURVE

The 20-person Wolff Group, a business consulting organization headquartered in Clark Summit, Penn., was seeking a Web-based method to enable their far-flung consultants to communicate with each other and the home office more effectively. They settled on HotOffice because, as Wolff's marketing director Kerry Kearney explains, "We tried a few and it came down to ease of use. We're too busy for a lengthy learning curve."

The HotOffice wizard made setup a breeze and gave Kearney the confidence that he could incrementally tackle features of the service in the future. "I'm a poster-child for the 'computer greenhorn'," he explains. "I'm interested in tools that help me sell our services, not force me to become a computer expert."

After signing up for HotOffice, the Wolff Group began using the bulletin board as a primary means of communication. "Different members of our team have specific tasks for each project," he explains. "With the Hot Office bulletin board, we can send out targeted messages. Team members can then check in and stay abreast of developments on a project or important company issues, whether they're in the Fort Myers, Fla. branch or the Chicago or Minneapolis offices." Once the internal team was up to speed, the Wolff Group began opening the boards to selected clients and using the threaded discussions as a means of communicating.

The next step will be to take advantage of HotOffice's document-management and revision control, both internally and with clients. The Wolff Group took an "80/20" approach, going for the tool set that offered the greatest "bang for the buck," then looking for ways to derive more benefit from the software.

HAVE IT YOUR WAY

Each collaborative scheduling service has its own look, feel, and feature set. So, which is best for your organization? The product that improves workflow and saves the company money is your best bet. To find it, it's best to shop around and kick the virtual tires by using a prospective system under real business conditions.

That's exactly what ArborComm, Inc., an information design firm based in Ann Arbor, Mich., did before deciding on a particular offering. "We assigned two people the task of opening an account and actually using the collaborative tools for two days to a week," recalls Catherine Titta, ArborComm's president. "The idea was to have the testers put the tools through their paces and then report back to the rest of the group."

The ArborComm testers methodically compared seven offerings, then narrowed the choices down to two. The entire company then tried both packages and chose to go with vJungle. The service offers a mix of scheduling and file sharing tools as well as a suite of online business appli-cations, such as a collaborative accounting program that allows for digital dialogue with your finance department regarding specific transactions or journal entries.

"Think about what would make life easier, not just what would be cool to do on line," Titta advises. For ArborComm, strong document management and extensive chat capabilities were critical. "We share extremely complex encoded documents, some using XML," she says. "With this system we were able to set up directories for subcontractors so they could share files related to particular projects. Web-based document sharing is a vast improvement over e-mail, which is time consuming and poses revision control issues."

Chat was important to ArborComm, according to Titta, because, "We have employees who live an hour away," she said. "On the days they work at home, they can dial into a local ISP and pop a quick question by chat to anyone in the office. That saves on long distance calls and surcharges."

Titta is very satisfied with thebenefits vJungle provides, but plans to experiment with other tools on the site during the next year. Her approach underscores that you don't have to use all the features immediately. As you get more comfortable with the service, it becomes easier to try other tools that initially seem inapplicable, but can actually boost efficiency.

CHECKLIST FOR SUCCESS

While choosing the right collaborative service relies on your company's individual needs, testing will be most effective if you develop a set of criteria for assessing individual offerings and services. The following guidelines can be tailored to meet your requirements:

Is the calendar truly multi-user? A multi-user calendar will ideally perform three functions: 1) Notify people by e-mail that they've been scheduled for a meeting; 2) Display the event or meeting in each recipient's calendar; and 3) Generate an automated reminder at a preset interval. It should also allow the user to create new groups and schedule meetings by department.

Does it offer collaborative document sharing tools? Most of the services provide storage space where you can park a file and then have it available for others to read or edit. That might suffice if all you're looking for is a convenient way to transfer files without dealing with e-mail attachments. More sophisticated services enable you to track edits and recall earlier revisions.

Is it selective? Ensure there is built-in intelligence so that you and your colleagues only get relevant materials, such as notifications and bulletin board posts. The system should also support customization so that only certain people have access to select functions.

How compatible is it? Can you synchronize your scheduling and contact information with your desktop, laptop, or Palm device? Will the data sync with the latest versions of the major PIMS/contact managers like Outlook, ACT!, and Gold Mine? As handheld devices become more important in business, synchronization capabilities will become critical for selecting collaborative services.

Web-based collaboration tools are ideal for small companies looking for ways to share information electronically, and provide many of the same functions as large corporate intranets. Used to their full extent, they can become an integral part of your day-to-day business.

* vJungle
425-558-9988
www.vjungle.com
Free for core service; pay for ad-free premium services

* HotOffice
561-995-0005
www.hotoffice.com
Free for core service; pay for ad-free premium services

* Blue Tie
716-244-5000
www.bluetie.com
Free 60-day trail, then $20 per user per month

* Agillion
888-647-7484
www.agillion.com
$30 per user per month

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