All Together Now

How collaboration software can make your company more efficient

Michael Richards is through schlepping bags of documents to clients of his $1 million auditing firm, Michael Richards & Associates in Yorba Linda, Calif. In April of last year, Richards signed up for WebEx (WEBX ) WebOffice, a shared online workspace where he and his 10 employees can store and edit documents. Now when Richards visits clients, he simply logs on to a shared Web site to find the paperwork he needs. "This has really revolutionized our business," he says.

The revolution was painless. Within minutes after Richards signed up with WebEx, he had a special Web site that he and his employees could use to manage projects, update their calendars, and gain access to a shared database. "Without the site, we would have two or three more employees managing paper," says Richards. The site is working so well that he recently signed up for a second site he'll use to collaborate with his 100 clients. All told, Richards will spend $9,000 a year for the two sites, plus unlimited Web conferencing for 25 people. He reckons he'll save $50,000 this year in administrative salaries. Clients are happy, too. "There's a little bit of a learning curve with clients, but once we show them how it works, they can't believe we didn't do it sooner," says Richards.

Business owners who want to communicate more efficiently -- and who doesn't? -- should take a look at collaboration software. Each software package generally includes 5 to 10 tools designed to handle one of three main tasks: Web conferencing, team collaboration, or remote desktop support. Depending on the number of employees you have and which tools you need, pricing can run anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars a month.

There are more than 100 collaboration tools on the market, with about 25 geared to small businesses. Choosing the right product is a matter of deciding which business problems you need to solve and with whom you need to collaborate. Spending too much money on travel costs? Web conferencing lets you make online PowerPoint presentations to distant clients or employees. Tools such as document sharing, discussion forums, and shared databases allow geographically scattered groups to work together on projects, even if they are not all working at the same time. If customer service has become a millstone, two-way desktop viewing and control might help. These functions allow customer-support reps to diagnose and fix a problem remotely on a customer's PC. In each case, you'll also need to consider the size of your business and how willing, and able, you are to handle technical problems. Then it's a matter of comparing features and price.

David Coleman, managing director of Collaborative Strategies, a San Francisco research firm, says most companies probably need to do six or eight tasks such as screen sharing or adding colleagues on an audioconference. "Figure out those things and look for something that does that well, and don't worry about the rest of the bells and whistles," he advises.

BOTH WEB CONFERENCING and team collaboration software can be downloaded to your PC, installed on your server, or purchased through a hosted service. Remote desktop support is usually offered only as a hosted service. Hosted services will cost you more, but you won't have to fix hardware or software glitches yourself.

Whether you go with desktop software, server software, or a hosted service also depends on how many employees you have and with whom they will be working. Companies with fewer than 50 employees that want to hold a Web conference with clients or suppliers might want a hosted service such as Convoq's ASAP Pro or Microsoft's (MSFT ) Live Meeting. These offer unlimited conferencing for a yearly fee, rather than per-minute pricing that can lead to unpredictable bills. Other software, such as LINQware's Collabrix or IBM Lotus Sametime, may be better for larger companies. Collabrix, for example, can handle a 200-attendee Web conference but offers only per-minute pricing.

Likewise, Microsoft's Groove Networks collaboration software may be best suited to companies with fewer than 50 employees. That's because when one user changes a document or spreadsheet, the change must be relayed to a server before each desktop is updated. WebEx WebOffice and GroveSite, because they make updates instantly, may be easier for larger groups to use.

Some vendors will cut their prices for bigger groups, too. You'll pay $199 a month for GroveSite for up to 25 users, but the per-user price drops as you add more people. Pricing for WebEx starts to drop once you sign up 10 people.

Keep in mind that if you choose a product to download to your own server or computers, you may need an IT person to fix any problems. Richards' hosted service costs about twice what he'd spend for Windows SharePoint, a similar product that could be downloaded to his company's servers. But he didn't want to worry about whether or not telecommuting employees were able to log in to his server. Another bonus: The hosted service acts as a backup for his data, in case the office is destroyed or its computers damaged. For companies that are growing quickly, a hosted contract that can be converted into on-premise software later can be a good strategy, says Robert Mahowald, program director of collaborative computing at researchers IDC.

It may also be helpful to ask your clients for software recommendations -- you don't want to have to use different software for different clients. Visual Comfort & Co., a 60-employee, $19 million manufacturer of chandeliers and lamps for retailers including Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma, chose GroveSite on the recommendation of a large client. Visual Comfort pays $150 a month for a 20-user license that allows employees to upload drawings, photographs, product specifications, and notes to a site that is shared with the company's Asian manufacturers. That ensures that everyone is working off the latest version of product specs, and it cuts down on the dozens of e-mails that used to follow each tweak to the design. Now, says private-label account manager Byron Wilson, the number of manufactured samples that don't conform to specifications has dropped by 80%. "We turn around samples more efficiently," he says. In fact, they run the whole company more efficiently.

By Rachael King

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