Effective collaboration is essential if you are to work successfully with customers, partners and as a company. And with flexible working becoming more common, it's arguably more important than ever to find collaboration tools that allow your staff to work together. Online collaboration tools can facilitate teamworking - even if your staff work in different locations or work at different times of day.
Are collaboration tools right for your business?
Collaboration tools allow team members to communicate with each other or contribute to a project in some way. They might enable several people to edit the same document at once, or track the signoff process for a new company brochure.
Some software packages include collaboration tools as standard. For instance, your office suite may well include file sharing tools, so you can mark document changes made by different people, or automatically send documents round for review.
Indeed, it may be a good idea to start with simple collaboration tools, then consider more advanced options as you need them.
For example, you can track the tasks people are working on with a simple Excel spreadsheet. As your team grows and you take on more projects, you could switch to an online project management tool, such as Basecamp or Trello, so people can update their own tasks.
Or you could use free teleconferencing tools to hold a meeting between people in different locations. Skype - which is included with Office 365, or available standalone - allows you to hold free voice, video and group chats. If you then decide you need to give presentations, you might move to an online conferencing system which allows screen sharing.
Types of online collaboration tool
There are several different types of collaboration tool:
- Real time collaboration tools. These allow two or more people to work on something at the same time. For example, you can use business conferencing to brainstorm ideas using an online whiteboard.
- Document editing tools. These allow several different people to edit the same document. They track and merge changes, let users add comments and can even manage the stages through to final approval.
- Project management tools help you coordinate projects. They decentralise control, allowing people to add and change their own project tasks, and then automatically update the overall plan.
- Problem tracking and reporting. These tools let you log issues ('bugs'), which can then be assigned to other people for resolution. They're useful for managing product development or tracking complaints.
Choosing a collaboration tool
There are three key questions to ask when choosing a collaboration tool for your business:
- What's it for? Draw up some requirements for your collaboration system. Who will use it? What sort of work will they be collaborating on?
- Who will use it? Some collaboration tools will charge for each user you have. You also need to establish whether you need to control access for different people.
- Will it work with existing systems? Many tools can link with other software or your intranet for extra flexibility. For instance, people may be able to access documents directly on your intranet, rather than having to open a separate program.
Most collaboration tools are now hosted online. With a hosted collaboration tool, you pay to use the service across the internet and access the software via a web browser. Hosted services are easiest to set up and typically very cost effective. Free collaboration tools are a good idea if you have limited requirements or want to try out some different options.
Find out what your employees would find useful for effective collaboration, and test tools before rolling them out across your business. You may need to change some business processes to accommodate collaboration tools, so it's important your staff feel involved from the start.