Online collaboration tools that let you work with far-flung co-workers and clients have moved into the mainstream of small business computing in the last few years. And while most small business owners understand why they should be using apps like Web, audio, and video conferencing; document sharing; white boarding, etc., many need help choosing which tools to use.
“There are so many options now, it’s hard to weed through them all,” says David Corcoran, president of Batipi Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in helping small and medium businesses select and implement collaboration solutions.
You won’t find many one-size-fits-all, omnibus solutions. HyperOffice is about the only one that even attempts to be everything to everybody, Corcoran says. (HyperOffice by the way is about to launch a completely revamped version of its service aimed at small businesses.)
“What we’ve found is that having the best-of-breed product suited to clients’ specific needs is more effective [than an all-in-one solution],” he says.
Sorting Through the Options
Corcoran identifies several distinct types of software-as-a-service (SaaS) tools that help enable online collaboration.
- Audio and video conferencing services — Skype is the most familiar, but there are many available — use the Internet to bridge participants together and carry voice and video.
- Web conferencing solutions such as Cisco’s WebEx and Citrix GoToMeeting allow participants to join an online meeting to view presentations or collaborate on computer-based work. Some also allow you to conduct online seminars, or webinars.
- E-mail collaboration solutions such as Google’s Gmail let distributed workforces use the same online mail service, and may offer presence and instant messaging as well.
- Document sharing tools — Google with its Google Apps, for example — doc sharing tools provide a central online repository for documents, with mechanisms for determining who can view and/or edit them. Document creation tools allow groups to mark up or — rarer — directly edit documents online during a meeting.
Aaron Hay, a research manager at Info-Tech Research Group, a high-tech research and consulting firm, adds another important category: white boarding and brainstorming solutions such as Twiddla and MindMeister. These tools and services allow groups to meet online for free-form brainstorming sessions and to record resulting notes and diagrams.
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