Online tools can deliver, but choose wisely

originally published on cbc.ca/money/smallbusiness

Business has always relied on collaboration. That fact drives the growth of online collaboration tools, but it’s an area where businesses need to tread warily.

Collaboration tools basically allow teams of people to divvy up tasks and share work. They can be as simple as an online copy of a document that anyone can access through the internet, or as complex as elaborate systems that help people manage all the intricacies of huge projects – from scheduling meetings, to tracking communications, to organizing massive amounts of team-edited material.

If you need to choose such tools for your business, you can learn from both successful tools and those that have failed.

Perhaps the biggest recent failure happened when Google announced in August that it would shut down its trailblazing Wave service.

“I never got into it, since you have to get other people to use it – and other people wouldn’t use it,” says Tom Mighell, senior consultant with e-discovery and records management consulting outfit Contoural Inc.

“Nobody understood what it was,” adds independent content strategist Stewart Mader.

Having people understand a tool helps drive its success, and companies like Microsoft and Adobe bank on this as they promote online sharing features within popular software that the market knows.

“It comes down to comfort,” says Mark Rosch, vice-president of continuing legal education provider Internet for Lawyers and co-author of Google for Lawyers: Essential Search Tips and Productivity Tools. He notes that Wave isn’t completely dead – certain Wave features will migrate to Google products like Gmail and Google Docs that people are comfortable with.

That desire for comfort may explain why Mighell figures he hasn’t seen any standout new collaboration products since the advent of Web 2.0. “Google Wave was one of the more exciting possibilities,” he says.

Dallas-based Mighell co-authored a book with St. Louis-based Dennis Kennedy entitled The Lawyer’s Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies: Smart Ways To Work Together using Google Docs.

For many reasons, the choice of a web-based tool over a computer-based one was a no-brainer for the two authors. For instance, they maintained one version of their book online, thus preventing a deluge of email attachments containing different versions of the work.

That one advantage increasingly pulls collaborators to web-based tools.

“People used to circulate paper copies of a document to colleagues,” Rosch recalls. “They then got handwritten notes which they had to decipher.”

Tracking changes in modern word processors simplifies the revision process, but still spawns multiple versions of a document.

“In online collaboration, we put the document in one place, send a message to people telling them where to find it, and they make changes right on the document,” Rosch continues. “You take fewer steps to do the same work.”

“And the process remains similar.”

Limitations in today’s online tools keep Kennedy from abandoning traditional software.

“I’ll start a document in Google Docs, then pull it down to Microsoft Word to make it look pretty,” he says, noting that a dearth of advanced features prevents many people from relying entirely on Docs.

For all their similarities, online tools behave differently from what people are used to. For instance, Mader says, “it’s a shock” when other people work directly on someone’s document. “It violates their sense of ownership.”

Mader recommends training to prevent such shocks.

“I try to mitigate this issue by having people collaborate on stuff they know will be shared, like a meeting agenda or minutes from a meeting,” he says.

Even if collaboration tools take root in a company, usage may plateau. Thanks to introductory incentives like free usage for a certain number of people, different tools can creep into a business. Initial enthusiasm can give way to strife when people using different tools need to share information but find themselves in collaboration-killing “software silos” made of tools meant to enhance collaboration.

That’s why it’s better to settle on one tool for the whole company before employees start using tools of their choosing. Mader figures that this one tool needs at least three things: document handling, blogging capabilities and discussion forums (plus the ability to turn off any features that collaborators don’t need).

The software commonly resides on a hosting provider’s servers where it also gets maintained and updated. Having it appear in web browsers means that collaborators can use it wherever they can connect to the internet.

This hosted setup commonly evokes security fears and grumbling about a lack of offline access. While there’s no easy answer to the latter criticism, champions of hosted setups counter security fears by noting that companies selling these services focus heavily on security since it could make or break their businesses.

“It’s the most important thing for a vendor to get right,” Mader says.

The field will grow more mobile thanks to the spread of smartphones and slate computers like Apple’s iPad.

“Collaboration will be the iPad’s sweet spot,” Mader says, “but vendors have yet to create an interface that really takes advantage of the iPad.”

Mighell likes single portals that allow access to all the collaboration tools people need, rather than the historical “siloization” of such tools. Mighell also notes how social media tools, which enable casual collaboration, are adding features that may appeal to businesses. “You can share documents in Facebook,” he says. “That’s useful.”

Rosch envisions companies thinking differently about knowledge and people management. It starts with personal profiles in which employees list their skills and interests.

“Managers could use that knowledge to assign work to people who have the skills they need,” Rosch says. “You might uncover skills or interests in employees that you did not know they had. You could post projects internally, and people may opt in to projects that interest them, regardless of the division they work for.”

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