What is an Online Collaboration Suite, and Why Should You Care?

(Originally published on June 30, 2010 in Small Business Computing)

What is an Online Collaboration Suite?

An online collaboration suite provides businesses with an integrated set of tools that span a range of collaboration needs. While not every collaboration suite includes the same capabilities, they often feature tools such as business email, instant messaging, contact management, calendars, file sharing, document management, project management, portals, workspaces, web conferencing, and social media tools such as forums, and wikis.

Online collaboration suites are delivered as web-based, Internet delivered services, so you don’t need to buy, install or configure any hardware or software, or hire IT staff or consultants to get up and running. Users simply login via a Web browser to buy and use the service, which are typically sold through a monthly or annual per user subscription pricing model, with certain amount of email storage included as part of the standard subscription price. As with many online services, most online collaboration suite vendors offer free trials so you can try before you buy.

Why Should You Care?

Collaboration is probably the only activity that everyone in every company engages in everyday. Whether you’re the CEO or a new hire, an accountant or a construction worker, you need to share and manage information, ideas, resources and connections to get your job done. Effective collaboration tools help you to share knowledge, streamline processes, and keep everyone in the organization “on the same page”.

Until recently, most small businesses could get along just fine with a few tools, such as email, calendars, document sharing and the good old telephone. But in the last few years, the growth of digital information has been exponential. Newer collaboration tools, including portals, Web conferencing, instant messaging, social networks, wikis, bookmarks and tagging have become more prevalent as people seek out better ways to organize, share and access this information avalanche.  At the same time, the kinds of devices we use to collaborate–from desktops to notebooks to smart phones to iPads–has exploded.

New and better ways to collaborate can help make your business more efficient and productive. But, it can be very difficult to piece together different tools and services into an integrated whole. Online collaboration suites integrate many pieces of the collaboration puzzle into a unified solution that makes it easier to find, share, manage and use information, and to locate and connect with the people you need when you need them.

What to Consider

Is your business is suffering from collaboration chaos? Common warning signs include:

  • Too much telephone tag–wasted time on missed phone calls, searching for missing phone numbers and locating people with the know-how you need.
  • Bottlenecks in finding information or resources needed to get a job done.
  • Email overload and version control issues–such as trying to figure out which document is the most recent one.
  • Mistakes made because people are using incorrect or outdated information.
  • An overload of customer service calls.
  • Inability to easily track, monitor and engage in social media conversations relevant to your business.
  • It takes too long to make decisions because people can’t access and/or agree on what the “right” information is.

While many vendors offer online collaboration suites to help pull together people, tools, services and content to help bring order to the digital chaos, the devil is in the details. The SMB Group is currently conducting research and interviews to provide an in-depth comparison of eight vendors’ online collaboration suites (including Google Apps for Business, HyperOffice, IBM LotusLive Engage, Microsoft Business and Office Productivity Suite (BPOS), OnePlace, Salesforce.com, VMWare Zimbra and Zoho Business). Each vendor has bundled a different a different mix of capabilities into its suite.

For instance, several vendors include email, project management and/or web conferencing as part of the suite, but others don’t. Some focus heavily on social capabilities, while others have just started to add this type of functionality. Standard storage for email ranges from 5GB to 25GB, and each vendor offers different standard service and support capabilities and service level agreements. Some focus exclusively on the small and medium business (SMBs), while others target large enterprises as well as SMBs. Some offer freemium models, others don’t. Of course, pricing varies, as does the minimum contract length–from one month to one year. Some vendors offer pieces of their suite, such as instant messaging or Web conferencing, ala carte, and let you add new solutions as you need them in an integrated fashion. Some vendors sell direct, some through channel partners, and some do both.  And each offering has its own look and feel.

While each of these solutions has its pros and cons, some will be a better fit for your business than others, so it’s critical to take a step back and consider your business needs, priorities and goals before you start evaluating specific solutions. Your assessment doesn’t need to be complicated–it can be as simple as thinking about what’s working well for you now, and identifying collaboration roadblocks and gaps that hamper productivity and business results. Then look for an online collaboration suite that can help you to address these immediate needs quickly and easily, but also give you the option to use more of the suite’s functionality as your needs require and time permits.

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