Wednesday, January 19, 2011

collaboration tools & what to look for

Work groups are spread far and wide these days. This has been a growing trend for the last few years and is just about the only way I work anymore. As an independent consultant and a small company I found using online collaboration tools essential to getting things done quickly and effectively without the burden of travel costs. Clients have often asked how I determine which tools to use for collaboration, conferencing, and mobile computing. The three most important aspects of an application or product I plan to work with are ease of use, affordability, and reliability.

Ease of use is an important consideration, especially when evaluating a collaboration platform in which users of varying skill level will be participating. If the features are difficult to find when you need them or another user cannot navigate their way around the work area it's safe to say the application is not easy to use. It's a good bet that anything you try will work in Internet Explorer, but you want to ensure the application functions equally well in Firefox, Safari or other popular browser. Ease of use includes the availability of a mobile app for your droid or iPhone. The key to success is understanding that ease of use is proportional to a user's level of frustration. The lower the frustration level, the easier the tool is to use.

Reliability is critical to successful integration of collaboration tools into your group's work. If the software has glitches causing it to freeze, requires you to download software in order to function correctly, or any number of inconveniences that interrupt your work flow you may want to consider another solution. If the solution you're using doesn't work well or smoothly your client, customer, or team may begin to think you might not be the one for the job.

I recommend the "try before you buy" method of purchasing a solution. I've had great success determining reliability of a service during the trial period. Taking software for a test drive is also useful for determining how easy it is to use. For example, an application I used had a nasty habit of immediately starting my webcam when our group wanted to use the voice feature for teleconferencing so I had to unplug my webcam before connecting. Another product I used, and dropped quickly, continually locked up my computer and caused the connection to drop regardless of ISP or computer configuration. These meeting wreckers were things I discovered during the free trial.

Cost should not be the number one reason you choose or eliminate an application or other product although cost is part of the decision and should not be taken lightly. Groupware solutions range in price from free to over $100 per month per user. You want to pay a reasonable amount for a good product you can rely on. My preference is to use open source, web-based tools for collaboration, data storage, and productivity. Open source software is affordable, usually innovative, and for the tech-savvy a great platform for tweaking tools to suit your particular needs.

There are numerous conferencing and presentation tools available; Citrx' GoTo Meeting, WebEx, RealTalk, Zoho Meeting are just a few. Even skype allows for desktop sharing during a conversation. None of these however allow for true, real-time collaboration the way Google Wave or SAP's new offering, StreamWork does. Though now discontinued, Google Wave was promoted as a hosted conversation. In many ways Wave is email raised to a higher plane. SAP StreamWork is a true collaboration space that provides multiple users with real-time, simultaneous access to the data.

SAP is known for their enterprise solutions, but StreamWork is an easy to use, reliable, and pleasantly affordable, spelled free, collaboration platform for smaller companies. It has a series of modules you can move around your screen. Any of the group participants can drag and drop agenda items. You can link dedicated folders from a account thereby utilizing less storage space on the SAP servers (and saving costs, too). Using integrated planning and evaluation tools makes StreamWork a valuable tool for project teams. If anyone from the group is unable to attend a meeting they can log into StreamWork at another time and quickly catch up. This robust, easy to use, and clean web-based application works just as well for a company my size as for large multi-nationals.

Additional web-based applications I include in my collaboration toolkit are Skype for general international communication, DimDim for webinars and presentations, RTM for simple task management, for document storage and sharing, Zoho Project, Google Apps, and Second Life. There are more, but these are the mainstay of my "corporate" infrastructure and all of them save time and money thereby increasing effectiveness, efficiency, and ultimately profitability.