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Collaboration tools to help you get work done together

Tag TeamIf you’re like most small business owners, you probably conduct a fair amount of your business away from your workplace—in fact a survey sponsored by Citrix Online confirms that small business owners are more likely to conduct business away from a traditional workplace with 50 percent of respondents confirming they did so frequently and 25 percent said they did so “all the time.” If you’re one of those road warriors, no doubt you are always on the lookout for new ways to stay in touch with your team and keep them in touch with each other. So you might want to consider collaboration tools.

Collaboration tools refer broadly to any set of applications that enable teams to store and share common project information in one central location. Collaborative packages often feature shared storage space for project documents, as well as containing elements that help keep track of versions, task lists, email archiving, and enable quick communication through wikis and chat. Organizational benefits are potentially huge—collaboration tools allow teams to stay organized and automate the tracking of project-related email so they can focus on the project itself. Collaborative space can be web-based to allow users to log in and access documents on a secure web site, or can be downloadable onto a desktop.

Today collaboration tools are available to suit businesses of all sizes. Forrester Research recently revealed that half the IT managers in larger companies are planning to implement formal collaboration technology software in 2008. Larger packages include enterprise solutions like IBM® Lotus® Sametime® or Microsoft® Office Sharepoint. Sharepoint for instance links in to the usual Office applications, but also offers elements like blogs, wikis, people lists and project/issue tracking and task coordination tools. Microsoft has additionally acquired another collaborative product called Groove which is based online and operates on a peer-to-peer basis, so that when a change is made to a project it is automatically distributed to team members, maintaining identical workstations. Since Groove doesn’t reside on a server, it is particularly useful for teams that are smaller and more mobile (Groove also works with Sharepoint for offices that have both applications).

Google® has entered the collaboration game with its offering of Google applications. Applications include Gmail which can feature email addresses @yourcompany, Google Calendar for scheduling meetings, Google Talk for chatting (integrated with Gmail) and Google Docs which allows users to create word processing documents and spreadsheets that allow users to track revision histories and access documents through mobile phones. Gmail and Google Talk seem particularly well positioned to work with BlackBerry smartphones.

Basecamp is yet another web-based product that has been praised in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek for its simple format. Again this collaboration tool includes features such as document sharing (an email or RSS feed alerts you to changes), versioning, project to-do lists, milestone lists, message boards, time tracking, and a project overview page that lets you quickly assess a project’s progress. Licensing allows users to purchase by number of projects on a monthly basis. The same company, online at www.37signals.com, additionally offers other products, such as the online contact manager and CRM product Highrise, the information organizer and calendar Backpack, and a chat solution called Campfire.

Other tools offer more specific collaboration opportunities, for instance Salesforce.com is a Customer Relationship Management solution that includes lead/opportunity/contact management, email and document sharing, and more. Great for workers on the move, Salesforce.com integrates well with mobile devices, with clearly indicated links to devices like BlackBerry smartphones and other mobile devices.

With many collaboration tools out there, finding the right one for your small business requires both research on the products themselves and consideration about how your organization will use the tools so that you can assess which package will work best. The good news is that most of these companies offer trial versions so you can test them out. Considering collaboration’s potential for making your projects and operations run more smoothly, test driving a few to find the right solution might be a worthwhile investment.

Related Links:

BlackBerry and Salesforce.com - Solutions for all business

Salesforce

IBM Lotus Sametime

Microsoft Office Sharepoint

Groove

Google Apps

Basecamp (direct link)

37 Signals (makers of Basecamp and other apps)

Please note: these solutions have not been tested nor approved by RIM and are referenced here for information purposes only.

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