Online collaboration tools: worth a look?

We take a look at what collaborative technology can do for you

It’s not just large corporations that are using online collaboration tools to boost productivity. Growing Business investigates what’s on offer for smaller, growing firms

You may not be aware of it, but online collaboration can be a powerful thing. By way of an example, consider this:

9:56am, March 1, 2009 – Twitter.com/benpbway tweeted: “Thinking about twitter service that allows you to send real mail and gifts to another user without disclosing either address, bad or good?”

3:53am, November 22 2009 – Twitter.com/benpbway tweeted: “Send anything, anywhere without an address; www.sendsocial.com is live!”

Between these two tweets on serial entrepreneur Ben Way’s Twitter account, a real business was born involving a handful of collaborators sourced through social media site Twitter in response to the first tweet. The (now) co-founders did not need to meet physically, nor did they know each other well. Yet through frenzied online collaboration enabled by Google Docs, they turned Way’s musing into a bona fide venture.

It remains to be seen whether the Royal Mail’s latest challenger will become a commercial success story. What is undeniable, however, is that SendSocial.com exemplifies how online collaboration can produce interesting results.

Filtering down

Hordes of large corporations have been using online collaboration and project management software for years, managing projects across geographically dispersed groups without the need for meeting internal teams, customers, suppliers or partners in person.

It’s big business – Merrill Lynch estimates that by 2012, the cloud-based computing market will be worth $160bn, $95bn of which will come from business or productivity tools, suggesting it will percolate to smaller firms on a wider scale. “There’s a growing need for increased interaction with external stakeholders, as well as being able to work much more closely and seamlessly with partners and suppliers,” says Mark Blowers, Butler Group’s enterprise architectures practice director and contributor to its Enterprise Collaboration report, published last September.

At enterprise level, in a globalised world, the benefits are blindingly obvious: no travel time or cost; transparency; rich tools designed to support and manage innovation; collaboration and delivery; plus storage – and all on one platform. Microsoft (through SharePoint), Oracle and IBM compete with countless other providers in the boardrooms of the world. But there’s no reason why smaller companies can’t join the party now, without having to pay through the nose for a fancy intranet or client-facing extranet set-up. The example of SendSocial and its use of Google is proof of this. Google’s ‘freemium’ suite of ‘cloud’ applications – Gmail, Talk, Docs, Calendar and Sites – boasting collaborative spreadsheets, presentations, documents, calendars and a structured ‘wiki’ tool accessible only through the web, is popular.

While most users probably stick to the free version, Google charges £33 per user, per year for its Premier Edition of Apps. Google Wave, which combines instant messaging, email, wikis and social networking, could make it even more interesting.

Small business tool

Arguably taking online collaboration up a gear, British business Huddle is fast-emerging as a tool of choice. Also provided on a freemium basis, users can create branded workspaces from which they can share and edit documents, create tasks, schedule and carry out meetings via the web or phone, and brainstorm on fancy virtual whiteboards.

The free version is really just a taster, consisting of one workspace where collaborators can progress a project, plus 1GB of storage. Beyond this, Huddle’s charges range from £10 to £125 a month for its enterprise version. Then there are Huddle’s high-end clients, including Proctor & Gamble, Nokia and Toshiba, which pay for additional workspaces. What’s more, as co-founder Alastair Mitchell is very keen to point out, Huddle is definitely relevant to firms just like yours.

“At its core, it’s a tool for small businesses,” he insists. “The general principles behind it are that it’s a suite to enable people to work more successfully. It’s low cost, all in one place, with a Software as a Service (SaaS) infrastructure. It’s perfect for small businesses. They care about money, and don’t want multiple tools, or to have to manage infrastructure.”

Convinced? Mitchell says thousands are accessing Huddle via its site or social networks, such as LinkedIn, Xing and Ning, and benefiting from its keen pricing, with hundreds of thousands more using the free service.

“If you were a big company, you would invest heavily in business enterprise infrastructure, such as Microsoft SharePoint,” he says. “A tool like Huddle is virtual, managed for you.”

So where does it sit with Google at the other end of the spectrum? “Google’s apps aren’t rich enough,” Mitchell explains. “The spreadsheets and documents are fantastic if you don’t want to spend on traditional software, but as soon as you start building sophisticated spreadsheets you need to think about investing in a different type of software.”

To ensure it matches Google on that level, Huddle integrates with Zoho’s suite of word processing, spreadsheet and presentation tools. “It’s an enterprise-grade toolset for the price of a web 2.0 tool,” Mitchell argues.

Provider rivalry

While Mitchell sees Microsoft SharePoint and Outlook as competition, the founder and chief executive of Huddle contemporary Sosius, Andrew Cameron-Webb, feels that’s over-stating its value. “Huddle is not enterprise grade,” he says. “It’s a more a simplistic form of collaboration. In our experience, such offerings soon become underutilised or redundant as, over time, they turn into outdated repositories.”

He adds that Sosius, unlike Huddle, can be interacted with via email, meaning it becomes part of the daily workflow. In addition, there’s also: Basecamp, developed by 37 Signals, which is well-established at the smaller end and offers wikis, to-do lists, file sharing and simple project management tools; Novell Pulse, which integrates Google’s Wave technology to offer what it says is a more real-time and social set of tools; and Mindjet Catalyst, which claims its visual mapping technology gives online collaboration a richer experience.

The alternative

Or, you could choose to avoid all of the above. Kate Craig-Wood, managing director of IT hosting company Memset, says: “I have always been a fan of Linux and the Open Source movement. Why pay for Microsoft software when there are perfectly viable alternatives, such as Open Office?”

Craig-Wood also uses the following open source products: Thunderbird for email; Trac for project and task management; a wiki with Sugar CRM for customer interactions; Jabber for individual and group text chat; and, somewhat reluctantly, Google Calendar for her diary. “We do not and will not use Google for business collaboration or communications, because I do not want another company owning my corporate data,” she says.

Craig-Wood has ruled out Huddle and Basecamp for the same reasons. “There are plenty of self-hostable solutions out there,” she says. “Then you don’t get locked in to paying ‘per seat’ for something that’s being run alongside thousands of other users for peanuts.” Solutions might come in many forms, but one thing is clear: collaboration is king.

Space exploration
Web design agency Raspberry Frog’s experience of using Huddle, and where its founder thinks the online workspace service should go next

Nathalie Allard uses Huddle’s online collaboration tools extensively to manage projects for clients. The founder of design agency Raspberry Frog pays for the enterprise version and says virtually all her customers, typically charities, non-profit and public sector organisations, have been happy to use it. “We’ve had one client who was not very web savvy, but people who are organised and structured love Huddle,” she says.

But that doesn’t make putting a financial value on collaboration software easy. “It’s difficult to measure or quantify how much I get back, but it’s a critical tool when you work with a company,” she says.

However, Allard’s clear on the many benefits. “It’s a one-stop place,” she says. “I love creating tasks, as you have control and can see which ones have been completed. Plus, the design is cool, you can choose the colour scheme to reflect the brand, and you can prove to clients when tasks were finished.”

But Allard does believe there’s room for improvement. She’d like a universal rich text editor to hyperlink mentions of websites, feels it should be possible to attach more than one file to a task, opts not to use the meeting features as you have to pay when Skype is free, and says editing files online rather than downloading documents first is clunky. She wasn’t convinced by her first experience of the Huddle iPhone application either. Allard is still paying a pre-price-rise £1,200 a year. “The foundations are there, and they’re great,” she says. “I’ve used it to the extent that I want it to become a web project management tool, but they would have to be careful about increasing the price.”

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