Project Management & Planning Articles

What Are Online Collaboration Tools – Discover Cloud Applications

by Michele Nachum
Published on 5 October 2011's purpose is to help small businesses discover the right business applications for their specific needs. A lot of small businesses do not have large IT departments and as such, require solutions that are easy to implement and manage , safe, and will ultimately deliver ROI for their business.

We are publishing a series of educational articles for entrepreneurs and small businesses to discover, review and compare business applications and guide them on how to leverage them as a way to grow their business. You might have heard the terms Collaboration Tools, Project Management Applications, CRM, Help Desk, Small Business Suites, or Time Tracking - but what do these solutions actually offer? How do they help a small business become more profitable? And frankly, why should anyone care?

This article is about collaboration tools and here we explain why it is important and how it can help increase productivity with employees and clients. We will outline the major components of collaboration tools, and offer specifics on what to look for when choosing an online collaboration solution.

What are collaboration tools?

If there is one word in IT that encapsulates how we work today, "collaboration" is truly it. Collaboration has turned computing from a singular activity into a social one - where you and your colleagues or even customers can communicate online and in real time. You can edit together; share demos; blog; update customer notes and so much more.

There are many types of collaboration tools - the most popular right now are the following:

  • Editing documents online (and avoiding nightmarish version control issues by sending multiple drafts via email)
  • Instant messaging - sending comments and having conversations via online/instant with colleagues
  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM) programs that allow you to record notes online about customers and clients and send to colleagues
  • Meeting tools where you can conference as well as showcase demos or a new work-project
  • Work-based Wikis - where people can have their own homepage and blog, write comments, share out work product and invite colleagues to join in the discussion
  • Question and Answer forums
  • Help Desks and live customer service

Why Should You Care About Collaboration Tools?

Collaboration is a very social and friendly term. What it means in the IT business is that finally people can get out of their silos and instead of hiding behind multiple email messages, share out thoughts with their teams across the world in real time without waiting for a meeting request, email or phone call. Collaboration helps to streamline your communications as well as elicit feedback from everyone - not just a core team of people.

In addition, as many travel budgets are being cut, collaboration tools have enabled teams to get together virtually, online and thus save a lot of money.

The benefits include the following:

1) Collaborate and meet with colleagues 24/7 - from all over the world without the expense of travel

2) Share out meeting and client notes via CRM programs in real time

3) Ability to connect in real time and share out critical (or not so critical) work product and updates with employees and clients immediately

4) Have a way to get to know people in your organization that might be in another office - but through "enterprise" or work-based wikis and blogs - have a sense of that person's ideas and POV.

5) Contribution of ideas from every level of the organization regardless of title or rank

6) Help your customers in real time

What features to consider?

Different collaboration tools will service different types of businesses. For example, if you have a business that requires a significant amount of travel, you may want a "live meeting" collaboration tool to allow you to meet with your team virtually and online.

Here are some other scenarios:

  • If you are part of a sales team, you may want to look into a CRM application that has collaboration tools to share out critical information with your colleagues about client meetings.
  • If you have multiple satellite offices or consultants in various geographies, collaboration tools that allow people to draft blogs, wikis and more can help teams get to know one another. In addition, business-oriented wikis are excellent tools to share and out and learn.
  • If you have a businesses that produce a lot of paper work - such as the legal or marketing industries - collaboration tools for storing and editing online will be critical.

How to choose the tool?

There are many collaboration tools available but to find the right one for your needs, you might want to take the following into consideration:

1) Pricing - there are many affordable products - so finding a solution in your price point will not be hard. Compare and contrast of different products and ascertain what tools you get at various subscription price points. Beware, the cheapest solution, no matter how cash strapped you are, is not always the best. Look for solutions with a free trial period.

2) Evaluate Business Priorities - some collaboration tools will include a myriad of applications and tools - others will only offer a few key tools. Decide which tools are most important so that you are not paying for applications that may not be applicable for your business.

3) Customers - Check out the type of customers the product serves. Are there any similarities to your business? Look inside the forums and chat rooms - what are other small businesses talking about? Do people seem annoyed or happy with the product? Is the product well supported by its team so if you have technical issues your needs will be met?

Review and Compare Collaboration Tools

The "Discover Cloud Applications Series" consist of a set of evaluation tools for small businesses. For the main solution categories such as Collaboration, CRM, Project Management, Time Tracking, Help Desk., Accouting… We share practical tips and guides as well as direct you to products that are affordable, scalable to almost any size business.