25 January 2013
As Online Collaboration Matures, How Can it Help Your Business Grow Up?
Online collaboration is far from new: communicating with each other and sharing information to get things done is, to a large extent, what we have been doing online ever since the Internet allowed us to contact sitting in a different room, office, city, country or even continent! Most of us have been using email for at least ten years and I bet a few readers have dabbled with Skype in the last decade!
Recently, though, we have seen web-based collaboration start to mature, as bandwidth and infrastructure limitations are removed, work forces become more distributed and the awareness of the potential of web collaboration increases.
In a survey conducted by MIT and Deloitte in May 2012, 75% of organisations predicted that online collaboration tools would be important for their business within the following 12 months.
Organisations are clearly keen to share in the increased service efficiency and productivity that these tools provide; but, among the many hundreds of ever-more sophisticated pieces of collaboration software, how does a business identify the one that can help it grow?
“Old Hat” Online Collaboration Tools
It’s not just email. Many of us have been using Instant Messaging, Voice and Video calls as ways to communicate more efficiently and to collaborate on projects, for years. Recently we have been doing that increasingly from smartphones and tablets, as software programs have been converted into handy apps we can use for communicating from almost anywhere, at any time. Large companies have long had distributed workforces, and therefore had a requirement for specialist software that allows enhanced project management and communication.
The explosion of high-bandwidth Internet access globally has, in recent years, opened up a world of highly skilled and specialised contractors to small businesses too. This has allowed SMBs to enjoy cost-saving benefits, but also created more of a demand for project task management tools to assist with completing jobs effectively.
The Harvard Business Review reports that, by 2015, nearly 40% of global staff will work remotely - and the majority of these will be dependent upon knowledge sharing.
In this new work environment reality, the limitations of some of the “old hat” tools become apparent.
- Email is great for one-on-one discussions but when CC-ing ten plus colleagues it becomes very inefficient and tends to overloads people inboxes – important messages may be ignored.
- Instant Messaging often keeps some records of discussions – but finding important links, references or documents from 6 months ago can be a very time consuming process.
- Voice and tele-conferencing have always been a great way to conduct business – and some have a recording facility so that you have a record of the conversation, but locating important information from a catalogue of discussions is, again, laborious and time consuming.
Enter the “New” Technology
For large organisations, intranets (private networks not accessible by users of the global Internet) and extranets (intranets accessible to some non- company members, or shared by more than one organisation) have typically been used for managing projects, storing and disseminating information and, sometimes, generating ideas. Often, however, the technology overtakes the ability of the organisation to keep their networks update; information becomes out-of-date quickly, unless maintained energetically. Anyway, intranets are beyond the means of most smaller and medium-sized businesses. The era of hosted applications is now upon us and many organisations are moving to subscription-based, pay-for-what-you-use applications, many of which are cloud-based.
- Software as a Service (SaaS) applications offer organisations of all sizes a way to communicate better – both internally and externally, with their clients. Examples such as our own Kanbanchi workflow management software sit alongside other collaboration tools like Asana.
- Adapted open source solutions – developed by a community like Drupal, developed by a commercial vendor such as Liferay, or fully commercial like Sharepoint. These can be configured to suit particular needs with intranet and collaboration tools included and external modules/plug ins added. They achieve much without any programming necessary.
- Larger companies hire integration consultancies to install, configure and customise solutions from large vendors (and sometimes open source); they also train staff and maintain the system but this is often an expensive option, with no guarantee of user adoption.
- Bespoke solutions – every organisation has specific needs but if these cannot be met by standard software then bespoke solutions are required. For example, a sector like estate agency has its own set of specific requirements; often they are too difficult to deliver by customising and extending an online service such as Salesforce, or utilising a portal platform as a base; it needs to be built from the ground up.
Designed for Collaboration
Hosted applications and increased bandwidth and Internet connectivity is the perfect combination for remote online collaboration; with the best collaboration tools, users can securely access information through any web browser and from any device – PC, smartphone, notebook or tablet – from any location. Collaboration tools encompass a wide range of software; many of the ones previously mentioned take their place alongside whole software suites that are aimed at large-scale project management; some of these may even frown on the use of internal email, believing that all internal communications should pass through their system. Many may also be designed not only to improve productivity and project collaboration, but to support sophisticated project management processes and include such features as:
- Task dependencies
- Critical path
- Gantt charts
- Budget & time planning
- Time tracker
Systems used with large engineering or telecommunications companies are good examples here. Others fall in between the standalone tools like email and IM and the large project management solutions; these are often more geared towards smaller businesses, being more task-oriented, rather than built to manage entire projects. This is where we’ll focus, for now.
Benefits of Collaboration Software
Effective task collaboration software is often “leaner”, without being loaded down by unnecessary functionality aimed at measuring performance. They are designed for businesses where groups of mature professionals operate and need tools to make collaborative life easier. Jobs are broken down and granulated to keep the information relevant only to the parties that it affects. This information is exchanged between users in real-time, unlike with email which requires being logged in and checking one’s inbox regularly. With correct access permissions granted, only the people that need to see the relevant information will be informed, so inboxes don’t become clogged with irrelevant messages.
More streamlined communication leads to less distraction for team members and better co-ordination of tasks. This can ultimately benefit customers, who are more likely to receive their product more promptly, assuming the task is product-related. Simple user interfaces mean it’s easy for new users to learn, with very little ramp-up period. They will quickly become motivated to interact; pertinent discussions can be opened, generating new ideas that can assist with existing tasks or used to create new ones that help towards the overall project goal.
Efficient collaboration requires a combination of the right tools being used right. Providing you do the necessary research to choose the right task collaboration software, the second part should come naturally from a user-friendly set up.
Collaborative Business Activities
So what specific business activities can benefit from improved collaboration?
Most business gurus would agree that good communication is required for effective decision making, leading teams and for idea generation and creativity – be it for improving internal operations, marketing the business better or designing new products and services. Below I have detailed some team activities that many businesses use frequently and which can be provided by collaboration software.
- Collaborative editing of documents – often using the likes of Google Docs
- Whiteboards for collaborative drawing
- Co-browsing – one user can see another user’s browser screen and even take control, this is just a subset of apps below
- Screen sharing and remote control –if a user shares his screen with another user and takes control to open a program and help with giving direction on a specific task. Services like Join Me and TeamViewer are examples.
- Knowledge management and data mining
- File sharing – using Dropbox, box.net, Google Drive. Cloud backup is also “collaboration” as you can share files that way.
- Single sign on –used to move smoothly between online applications; for example getting authenticated by one Google login to access many Google SaaS services.
- Working with freelancers – sites like oDesk and Elance provide tools for sharing, communicating and collaboration.
- Software Development Projects have access to specific tools like Leankit and Bugzilla
- Customer Relationship management (CRM), Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and database management – some tools like Zoho provide suites of products, with project management only a part of them.
Some of the above serve communication needs, others knowledge management or project management needs. Sometimes they overlap. For example, all conversations in Yammer (sometimes used as a Skype chat replacement) are stored, shared, and accessible using search. So this chat client is both an IM and information storage tool.
How to Pick the Right Tool out of the Stack
It’s perhaps partly human nature to “follow the crowd” and opt for the tools you know about and which you’ve heard others using. That might lead your small business up the path to Basecamp or Asana, for instance. Now, they may be the right tools for you to use, but equally they may not. The mistake is in thinking they are all the same. Many of the collaboration tools you meet will have similar functionality; it is the user experience that varies. How are the features delivered and how does this “fit” in to the way your business likes to go about its work? A checklist is seldom enough and an evaluation process is therefore needed to select the best one. You will need to ask yourself the following questions as you assess various solutions:
- Will you use many tools or one all-encompassing solution in your business (if you need many tools how will you make that user-friendly – through a password manager?)
- Will the software integrate into your existing work environment?
- What changes or adjustments will you have to make to the way we work – in order to accommodate this software? Remember the software should accommodate you – not the other way around.
- What size projects do you usually work on – and how are those projects broken down?
- How do you estimate the size of tasks and the workload involved?
- Does the software allow you to easily access every task any time you want, in any order?
- Can you easily assign/reassign tasks to people using the software?
- How easy is it to manage the task workflow?
- Can you set relationships between tasks?
- Is the solution robust and secure?
Understanding not only what collaboration software can do – but some of the intricacies of it and how the user experience changes with different models – is key to selecting the right one. Your business doesn’t need an overhaul to fit in with a software package; software should be the tool that serves your business. Finding the best fit may take a little time but it will pay big rewards in terms of enhanced communication, better workflow management and improved productivity in general. You may start exploring collaboration tools from Kanbanchi. Try it now and look if it’s the tool that suits your business.