A Guide to Online Collaboration Software - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell
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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 May 05, 2011
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