With a more widely distributed workforce – projects and litigation may involve in-house employees, consultants, contractors and teleworkers – the need for online collaboration has never been greater. Fortunately, there are plenty of choices on the market to meet the need.
Choosing a tool requires an assessment of its many features, as well as researching user reviews and long-term costs before making a commitment. To kick off any exploration of online collaboration resources, here’s a sampling of some tools:
Called a “social collaboration platform” by its developers, Jive has been an ideal way to connect multiple offices and empower users to create shared content, says Andrea Bredow, community manager at HealthFitness, a health management company in Minneapolis. The company has been using Jive for about eight months, and Bredow is especially fond of a feature called “connection streams,” which allow each employee to set up a “section” of the application for his own content. Other users can then subscribe to those streams and stay updated on specific projects. Stacy Freeborg-Junge, HealthFitness senior marketing communications manager, says that about 900 employees are registered on the tool, and that more than 500 of them are active on Jive every day.
“This is a new and emerging platform for a business setting, and it feels like a different way of working,” Bredow says. “Working this way, stuff doesn’t get lost in your email inbox, and you can stay up-to-date on every project that’s relevant for you.”
One of the most popular web conferencing applications is WebEx, put out by Cisco, but some users feel that it’s not as intuitive as it could be. Jon Bauer, marketing manager at Moquist Thorvilson Kaufmann, an Edina, Minn.-based accounting and consulting firm, has started moving from WebEx to Adobe Connect, which he finds user-friendly and simple for collaboration.
Recently, he participated in an online class as part of his Master of Business Administration program and used Adobe Connect to upload files, share desktops with other students and communicate through chat features.
“When I compared this experience with the WebEx meeting I had at work the next day, I was really disappointed,” he says.
Google tools tend to be free, intuitive to use and well-known to many users. At Minneapolis-based creative agency Adsoka, employees share their schedules through Google Calendar and swap documents through Google Docs.
Even in a small office, they use Google Chat to carry on conversations so they don’t annoy each other by shouting across the open-floor-plan office space.
“I’m often ‘talking’ to three employees at one time, even though there’s no verbal communication heard,” says James Inskeep, Adsoka principal. “It cuts down on emails, ensures that needed information is communicated, and work isn’t interrupted.”
Adsoka also utilizes a custom-built application, which can be helpful if other tools don’t seem to have the feature set a company truly needs. Inskeep says the agency created two applications for collaboration with clients. One manages the marketing database so that clients and the agency can work on it jointly, while the other keeps track of day-to-day planning when managing a client’s brand. The latter tool, informally dubbed Brand Central, has become essential to Adsoka’s operations.
“We absolutely love the increased productivity and faster response,” Inskeep says. “The online tools have saved us significantly when it comes to investment in project management in the form of personnel. Instead, we can invest in more creative talent.”
Many companies rely on a mix of online collaboration tools that are geared toward specific tasks, or for certain projects. For example, at global professional services company Towers Watson, a blend of tools includes Jive, Microsoft SharePoint, Microsoft Lync, Atlassian Confluence and InterCall. Ryan Hunter, innovation leader in the company’s Minneapolis office, says InterCall and Microsoft Lync are the most widely used on a day-to-day basis, but other tools are necessary for specific business purposes such as document sharing, software development and social networking.
“Lync enables our teams to internally share ideas and make decisions in real time, while InterCall enables us to reach our clients and external business partners using interactive webcasts and teleconferences,” Hunter says. He adds that the company is constantly looking for opportunities to simplify its tool set, while still maintaining a collection of purpose-fit collaboration tools.
As offices continue to include employees and contractors from throughout the United States and the world, these type of tools will continue to be vital for making projects more efficient and productive. It’s a wired world, so why not harness a team based on skill rather than geography?
Elizabeth Millard has been writing about technology for 17 years. Her work has appeared in Business 2.0, eWeek, Linux Magazine and TechNewsWorld. She attended Harvard University and formerly served as senior editor at ComputerUser.