The SMB collaboration market is in something of a conundrum. Multiple players are targeting this segment, but with vastly different solutions. These solutions differ not just at the features/functionality level, but at the conceptual level.
This is undoubtedly an era of change. A number of fundamental interacting forces are at play which have ensured everything is in gray. They are as follows:
1. The emergence of the SaaS model, and the benefits it brings — no hardware/software maintenance hassle, universal access, mobile access, end user rather than IT orientation.
2. The comeuppance of “social technologies” which empower end users to meet, connect, communicate, comment, tag, vote, or collaborate through the Internet and form communities. This leads to phenomena like “crowdsourcing” which enables companies to tap on the “wisdom of the crowd.”
3. Organizational structure and management theory are undergoing evolution due to widely available benefits of the Internet and Internet technologies. Those who have studied management will remember cutting edge theories like “the virtual organization” or the “boundaryless” organization which are possible because of current technology. The trend is undoubtedly towards democratic systems and emergent (bottom up) rather than imposed (top down) structures.
I will try to conceptualize the different solutions as a continuum (although they may not fit perfectly in this conceptual framework), and discuss solutions from one end to the other.
On one end of the spectrum are “freeform” solutions, which will have nothing to do with organizational structure at all. The assumption is, groups of people just need to get together for a task, finish the task, and move their respective ways. The emphasis is on highly intuitive, powerful, and simple tools, which all group members can access from anywhere to get work done.
One exponent of this approach is Adobe’s Acrobat.com. Acrobat.com is a highly visually appealing online solution that allows users to share and collaborate on documents and PDF files. It contains tools for purely web based collaboration on documents (Buzzword), presentations and spreadsheets as well as a tool for online meetings (ConnectNow).
It is not as if Acrobat.com is aiming only for a small part of the collaboration problem. The makers of Acrobat.com see it as a complete online collaboration solution. In his well-known blog “What 100k People a Week Tell Us,” Erik Larson, director of marketing and product management for Adobe’s business productivity unit, has compared and positioned Acrobat.com against other collaboration solutions Microsoft SharePoint and Google Apps.
Another radically new approach to online collaboration which can be labeled as “freeform” is Google Wave. Google Wave looks something like an email inbox, only the inbox does not have emails but “Waves,” where every Wave is a collaborative space in itself, and all participants of that Wave can collaborate in real time on text and rich media, have real time conversations, or coauthor documents, etc.
The “Workspace” model
The next set of solutions acknowledge that intuitive and end user friendly tools are essential for effective collaboration, but also believe that the solution should somewhat reflect the structure of the organization. Teams don’t need to work together just once, but on an ongoing basis, often on complex tasks involving sub tasks, deadlines, and sequencing of activities. They also need repeated access to the same information (forms, contract documents) and for information to be stored and archived for future access (if not for regulatory compliance).
Therefore, teams don’t need tools just for pure collaboration, but for coordination of team activities, and for information organization. And in a world where a large chunk of knowledge workers’ time is spent interfacing with software tools, the collaboration solution also serves the HR role of engaging and motivating employees.
The model which reflects this is the “workspace” model. Information and collaboration tools are grouped by dedicated “virtual workspaces” for each group, team, or department where information and tools for that group are collected. A “workspace” is a collection of:
HTML pages and productivity tools, where information is organized and stored (file libraries, address books).
Tools included for coordination (shared calendars, project management), pure collaboration (document collaboration, wikis), discussion (forums), as well as for motivating and engaging employees (daily announcements and news, polls, pages with statement of company policy, recognition of team members, etc.)
Each workspace is protected with a permissions system, so that only the members of that group can access its information and tools, and multiple levels of permission are applied within the same workspace, to reflect different roles and positions within the group.
There has been a recent trend for these “workspace”-based solutions to also include tools for business email and conferencing because of the relatedness with “collaboration” tools, and for providing the convenience of having all necessary productivity tools in the same place.
Although these solutions reflect the structure of the organization, they still support an “emergent” organizational structure, since local groups are in complete control of their “workspaces.” These tools are designed to be used by non-technical end users, who have the power to manipulate and mold their workspace to local needs. With end users and subject experts driving technology, structure emerges from below. Although the multi tenant architecture of such solutions does not allow for an intricate degree of customization, a certain degree of customization is possible.
There are two variants of solutions in this category.
Purely web based
The first is “purely web based” collaboration suites, which in addition to workspaces and other tools include completely web native document authoring and collaboration.
These solutions strongly advocate a shift from widely used traditional desktop office productivity software like MS Office and MS Outlook to purely web based office productivity software. The benefits of web based Office suites are touted (the ability to collaborate better, the freedom from dependence on MS Office, system independence and cost friendliness).
But on the downside these web based Office suites by their very nature are not as powerful or feature-rich as a desktop solution like MS Office. The main proponents of these types of solutions are Google Apps and Zoho.
The second is web based suites which include workspaces and all the other collaboration tools mentioned above, but help collaborate in the technological context of traditional office software like MS Office, and work best in the context of companies which use and operate in a network of partners, clients, and vendors that work in a similar technological context.
The assumption is that although completely web based productivity solutions might be the way of the future, in the current technological landscape most companies work in an internal and external context where software like MS Office and Outlook are already widely used and massively popular. So the collaboration solution should integrate with and allow collaboration in this context. HyperOffice represents this category.
To be fair, even purely web based solutions have been forced to acknowledge the popularity of MS solutions in most businesses and that a complete shift may yet take time. That is why even Google Apps recently started offering integration with MS Outlook.
Highly structured solutions
On the other end of the continuum are highly structured collaboration solutions which reflect a “mechanistic” organizational structure. The emphasis is not on simplicity, but power. The main proponents of this approach are MS SharePoint and Lotus Notes.
These solutions are powerful, and allow for creation of highly customized solutions and workflows according to the nature of the organization (Banking, Finance, Engineering, Consulting, etc.). They are ideal for large sized organizations which need intricately customized applications, multiple levels of security, governance and policy controls, and the ability to integrate with a complex technological environment.
Also, these solutions are ideal for collaboration within large organizations (for example, thousands of employees scattered over many countries) where the technological landscape is somewhat similar. These solutions are not suitable for open networks or what Dion Hinchcliffe termed the “wilds of an open network.”
But although the power of a solution like SharePoint is incredible, it is not “out of the box” and very complex, requiring technical experts to implement the solution, run it, or make changes to it. Due to this, the degree of control end users or subject matter experts have is minimal and they have to depend on the IT department to make changes rather than being able to mold the solution according to local needs.
Hence these solutions are ideal for organizations with a top down organizational structure, with a centralized IT department managing solutions used by local groups.
Evidently, not all collaboration solutions are right for all contexts. Although all of these solutions position themselves as THE collaboration solution for the SMB segment, not all are ideally suited for the need of an SMB.
In my opinion, freeform solutions like Acrobat.com and Google Wave are suitable for temporary groups and teams which may have diverse and geographically distributed participants, where subject matters need to collaborate effectively on information, and disband as soon as their objective is achieved.
“Workspace” solutions are ideally suited for small to medium sized companies around the size of 500 employees or at the departmental level, where the need for speed and simplicity overweigh the need for policy control or compliance. Nor is there a need for intricately customized solutions.
Highly structured solutions are ideal for medium to large enterprises which need intricately customized solutions and have dedicated IT departments and can spare the cost of running and managing these solutions.
* This article was printed in eBizQ.