Small Business Guide to Social Collaboration Tools

Small businesses have many advantages over the big guys, not the least of which are speed and agility. Social collaboration tools are a natural fit to magnify these advantages, but big competitors can use them to speed their efforts, too. It is imperative, then, to use these tools post haste. The good news is that most of these tools are also available in a free version.

The bad news is that “social collaboration” goes from buzzword to buzz-kill almost immediately, because confusion sets in, borne of vague definitions and a slew of widely different product choices. It’s hard to discern a clear path forward.

“Collaboration tools encompass a wide range of solutions, and different people think of different things when they hear that phrase,” said Scott Allison, CEO of startup Teamly, a SaaS workplace performance management tool. “So, simple and well-known tools tend to win out.”

And that’s exactly what has happened at most SMBs when it comes to social media tools. Today, thousands of small businesses collaborate with employees, vendors and/or customers almost exclusively over Facebook. According to the Small Business Social Media Survey conducted by Webs last month, “two thirds of small business owners use Facebook.”

Yammer, a social collaboration tool

Figure 1: Here’s a sample of what a profile page looks like on Yammer.

“Once SMBs find something that works, it’s very hard to convince them to switch,” said Allison. “It’s very common for SMBs to be using out-of-date operating systems, hardware and, of course, software too.”

While using outdated hardware and software is a serious security threat and a productivity drain on your business, using Facebook to collaborate with employees, advisors and vendors is arguably more so. A Wired article, which details last month’s Facebook settlement, points out a continued pattern of abuse: “In November, the Federal Trade Commission slapped Facebook’s hand to settle government charges it ‘deceived’ users that their information would be kept private, although it was ‘repeatedly’ shared with the public.”

So sticking with Facebook for the purposes of collaboration, rather than confining it to marketing and customer service, can be a serious mistake since you’re basically broadcasting all your company secrets.

But Facebook isn’t the only social medium that can create a hazard to your operation. The ever-popular document sharing app, Dropbox, poses serious security concerns, too, and a breach occurred as recently as a few days ago.

Given the frequency of such problems, it is important to stay abreast of security alerts, use the right tools for each collaborative event, and be willing to switch apps as soon as something better comes along.

Breaking Down Social Collaboration

“Social collaboration is a fairly complex problem and is, by far, the most diverse and least homogeneous of all business software categories,” explained Balachandar Ganesh, who heads research at Credii, a Web startup that aims to solve the problem of business software selection for SMBs via its “Yelp-on-steroids” approach. “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, largely because vendors tackle the collaboration problem from different angles.”

He says that broadly speaking, three different categories of social collaboration software that are particularly relevant to small businesses: people-centric, task-centric and file-centric.

Although, he adds, there are at least a few apps that cross-over the three, namely:

“Central Desktop, Thoughtfarmer, Huddle, BlueKiwi, eTouch, and Siteforum in particular have a fairly strong installed base in SMBs,” said Ganesh.

People-centric Collaboration Category

This group of tools is popularly known as “Facebook for the enterprise.”

“That is because this category of social collaboration tools aims to promote spontaneous, non-mandated knowledge exchange between people in the form of status updates, comments, wikis, microblogs etc,” said Ganesh. “This can either be internal, organization-focused or external, partner- or customer-focused.”

Top tools in this category:

Task-centric Collaboration Category

The offerings from this category of tools include shared workspaces, shared whiteboards, collaborative project- and task-management software, and shared computer screens.

“Task-centric collaboration tools aim to replace the email and spreadsheet combination, which has, up until now, served as the de-facto channel for different stakeholders in a small business to communicate, relay, track project status, and share updates,” explained Ganesh.

Top tools in this category:

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