A Small Business Guide to Online Collaboration Tools

Online collaboration tools that let you work with far-flung co-workers and clients have moved into the mainstream of small business computing in the last few years. And while most small business owners understand why they should be using Web, audio and video conferencing, document sharing, white boarding, etc., many need help choosing which tools to use.

“There are so many options now, it’s hard to weed through them all,” says David Corcoran, president of Batipi Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in helping small and medium businesses select and implement collaboration solutions.

You won’t find many one-size-fits-all, omnibus solutions. HyperOffice is about the only one that even attempts to be everything to everybody, Corcoran says. (HyperOffice is about to launch a completely revamped version of its service aimed at small businesses.)

“What we’ve found is that having the best-of-breed product suited to clients’ specific needs is more effective [than an all-in-one solution],” he says.

Sorting Through the Options

Corcoran identifies several distinct types of software-as-a-service (SaaS) tools that help enable online collaboration.

  • Audio and video conferencing servicesSkype is the most familiar, but there are many — use the Internet to bridge participants together and carry voice and video.

  • Web conferencing solutions such as Cisco’s WebEx and Citrix GoToMeeting allow participants to join an online meeting to view presentations or collaborate on computer-based work. Some also allow you to conduct online seminars, or webinars.

  • E-mail collaboration solutions such as Google’s Gmail let distributed work forces use the same online mail service, and may offer presence and instant messaging as well.

  • Document sharing tools — Google with its Google Apps, for example — provide a central online repository for documents, with mechanisms for determining who can view and/or edit them. Document creation tools allow groups to mark up or — rarer — directly edit documents online during a meeting.

Aaron Hay, a research manager at Info-Tech Research Group, a high-tech research and consulting firm, adds another important category: white boarding and brainstorming solutions such as Twiddla and MindMeister. They allow groups to meet online for free-form brainstorming sessions and to record resulting notes and diagrams.

There is much overlap among these categories. Google Apps and Gmail work tightly together, for example. Skype now allows some application sharing. GoToMeeting includes audio conferencing. And so on.

Robin Good (a.k.a. Luigi Canali De Rossi), the Italian-based publisher of Kolabora, an international e-zine devoted to online collaboration, has developed a mind map that shows scores of products and services in more than 20 categories and sub-categories.

Identifying Your Collaboration Needs

The first step in the selection process, Corcoran and Hay agree, is to identify your specific requirements. What are the pain points? Where are the bottle necks in your employees’ interactions with colleagues, partners, suppliers, customers? That will determine the type of tool or tools you need. (Good’s mind map shows the range of what’s available.)

If you have one or two pain points – say you need to set up brainstorming sessions within a distributed work team — chances are you will find free or very low-cost tools to relieve them, Hay says. Skype for the audio portion, for example, and a tool such as Twiddla for white boarding.

“On the other hand, if they identify three or four pain points,” Hay says, “there’s a good chance they will have to pay.”

Corcoran estimates his clients pay somewhere between $5 and $25 per user per month for online collaboration. Not all vendors charge by the user or the month, though. In some cases, it’s a yearly subscription, in others it’s a subscription for an unlimited number of users.

Pre-screen the Collaboration Candidates

Requirements and preferences are specific enough to each company and task that once you’ve identified a sub-category of tool, you will ultimately need to get your hands dirty testing to find the best one for you. But it’s possible to eliminate many with pre-screening.

“You can usually tell right away if it’s a fly-by-night operator,” Hay says. One test: if the company only offers payment by PayPal, be skeptical. PayPal is a good option for a vendor to offer, he hastens to point out, but there should be multiple options, including standard credit card payment.

“One thing you want to see [from a vendor] is a consistent track record of updating and keeping their product current,” Corcoran says. The best service providers are also responsive to user suggestions for improvements or fixes.

Check to see if the company has online user forums, the level of activity at those forums and evidence of positive interactions between vendor and subscribers. The absence of forums or sparseness of activity at them, especially recently, should send up red flags, Corcoran says.

Must Read

Get the Free Newsletter!

Subscribe to Daily Tech Insider for top news, trends, and analysis.