A Small Business Guide to Online Collaboration Tools - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell
  • Print Article
  • Email Article

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.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

Page 2 of 2

Previous Page
1 2
This article was originally published on December 23, 2009
Thanks for your registration