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Cloud computing has given SMBs more choices than ever for how to collaborate. That doesn’t mean improving communication will be easy. 

Small businesses must be crafty, outmaneuvering their larger competitors in order to survive and ultimately thrive. One way to do that is to make better or faster decisions, and that takes collaboration among employees and business partners.

Yet even as IT budgets start to rise, small and midsize businesses are torn over whether to invest in collaboration projects, InformationWeek Analytics research shows. One-third of SMBs are increasing their IT spending in support of collaboration compared with last year, just over half are spending the same amount, and 15% are cutting that spending, according to our Outlook 2011 Survey of 260 business tech pros at companies with 1,000 or fewer employees.

The key for small business IT leaders is to recognize early when their collaboration or information-sharing processes are breaking down and impeding the business. A slew of emerging collaboration systems can help SMBs, but this decision’s much more nuanced than building a storage or data communication network. Sure, every business has unique infrastructure needs, but for the most part, the plumbing that works for small business A will probably work for small business B, with some tweaks here and there. But when it comes to building a successful collaboration and information-sharing strategy, what works for business A may never work for business B.

There are pitfalls to implementing any new collaboration tools, just like with any tech-driven strategy. Some will resist, particularly those who fear losing control of the information flow. On the opposite end of the spectrum will be those who treat collaboration as a goal unto itself rather than focus on the business problems these new collaboration tools should solve.

The good news is that many SMBs will have more IT resources than last year as they consider whether collaboration is a priority. A bit more than half (56%) expect their IT budgets to rise compared with a year ago, and only 20% expect a cut (see chart, right). Should improving collaboration be among the priorities SMBs attack with those IT dollars? Both employee expectations and the tools for collaboration are changing fast, so IT leaders who haven’t assessed this landscape lately need to pay attention.

Overload: Moving Away From E-Mail

If you’re part of a company of 10 people with a handful of clients, you can probably get away with using basic e-mail, calendar, and contact tools to stay on task. But if you’re a project manager juggling 10 different client engagements that produce 100 e-mails per day, chances are you’re finding it difficult to separate projects and stay organized. Yet you might take a mental break by opening a Facebook page and feel like you can catch up with the developments of 150 different people–and for some reason, it’s anything but overwhelming.

This small example illustrates the pressure that the consumerization of IT is having on business collaboration. When you think about social networking in the context of how much information you can process quickly, you can see why businesses are making social networking features part of their collaboration strategies, and why employees are pushing for such tools.

Some collaboration tools, like Salesforce .com, Yammer, and WebEx, started as enterprise tools and are trying to replicate some of the consumer experience of Facebook and Twitter. And while Facebook started out as a site to connect family and friends, it now lets you create private groups that can be used for any purpose, including private workspaces where employees, clients, and strategic partners and vendors can privately communicate about a particular project. (More on these product options later.)

Can you really make Facebook-for-business the centerpiece of your company’s collaboration strategy? Probably not, but you should at least consider the advantages of tools like Facebook private groups, Google wikis, and Yammer social networks. They’re free, at least to start. They offer a simple interface that most people can navigate easily. They let you separate groups and projects into individual workspaces. They let you keep a running tally of project updates, feedback, and content. Oh, and they all run on a platform–software as a service–that your IT organization doesn’t have to manage.

How do you manage small projects that are not part of PMI methodologies?

You won’t be able to ditch your e-mail client. But if you answer yes to a lot of the following questions, you need a more robust, complementary collaboration toolkit:

Are you constantly engaging in long e-mail threads with multiple people?

Do you find yourself going back through your e-mail to search for a project-related updates?

Are you multitasking medium- to long-term projects, each with a laundry list of deliverables?

Do you need a more effective way to share content with suppliers, customers, or other third parties?

Most Microsoft Exchange administrators will tell you that their information repositories were never meant to be used as a file server for storing 500 versions of a particular attachment. One side benefit of organizing projects in wikis and other Web-based groups is the reduction of e-mail clutter and the storage needed to service and archive mail.

But an updated collaboration strategy that stops at wikis and social-networking-inspired collaboration isn’t enough. Those tools aren’t designed to give your CEO a real-time update on the company’s cash position or real-time access to the utilization rates of your consulting staff. At some point, even small businesses need at least basic business intelligence and dashboard reporting. They need more than the tools to collaborate; they also need a shared set of facts to discuss if they’re making sound business decisions.

The question then becomes, which tools can small businesses buy, integrate, and support without breaking the bank?

To SharePoint Or Not To SharePoint

Microsoft SharePoint has emerged at large companies as something of a Swiss Army knife for collaboration. It provides intranets, content management, community features such as profiles and project sites, as well as executive dashboards to display pertinent business information in real time.

For SMBs, the big problem is that SharePoint can get pricey, including the cost of the staff needed to manage it. A full deployment requires companies to buy the core Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) license along with the SQL Server database, but there’s another gotcha that often hits IT managers after they fall in love with SharePoint. Every employee accessing the MOSS server will need a dedicated SharePoint client access license, and on a large scale that could dramatically increase the total deployment cost.

We’re not saying SMBs should rule out SharePoint; we’re just saying you should do your homework on all of the licensing costs. For small shops interested in SharePoint but not ready to dive in, Microsoft offers a teaser through its free, lightweight version called Windows SharePoint Services. WSS offers plenty of useful collaboration and document management features, but it lacks the robust search, indexing, and personalization features available in MOSS. More important, though, WSS doesn’t support Excel Web Services, so its dashboard capabilities are thin.

If you do catch the SharePoint bug, consider renting the enterprise version as a service instead of plopping down loads of cash to own it. Plenty of third parties offer SharePoint as an online service. Microsoft’s own SharePoint Online costs $5.25 per user, per month; you can get SharePoint plus Exchange e-mail, Office Communications instant messaging, and Office Live Meeting for conferences for $10 per user, per month.

For SMBs comfortable with online services, don’t limit yourselves to SharePoint, as there are so many options it’s almost staggering. Whether you need group collaboration, an intranet, business intelligence, or messaging, you can rent some or all of it, without the up-front capital risk, to experiment with what works for your business.

How do you manage small projects that are not part of PMI methodologies?

Growing Number Of Products

It’s impossible to create a complete list of vendors and products for SMB collaboration, so think of this as a sample of noteworthy offerings, a place to start your search rather than a short list.

>> Yammer. Built to be a Facebook for the enterprise, Yammer says it’s used by more than 90,000 companies, including 80% of the Fortune 500. But use could mean as few as a couple of employees on its business e-mail.

Yammer offers messaging, group collaboration, document management and file sharing, profiles, and Twitter-like microblogging, among other features. And it lets you build communities with people outside your company. Those features can be had for free; $5 per user, per month adds more security and admin controls, single sign-on, and improved support.

>> HyperOffice. HyperOffice offers many of the same features in SharePoint Online Services: document management, messaging, group collaboration, and intranets. Pricing starts at just under $10 per user, per month.

>> Google. No list of cloud-based collaboration tools would be complete without mentioning Google. Its Google Apps suite, including Sites, Docs, and Gmail, covers group collaboration, messaging, project work spaces, and document management, among other things. Google Docs, for example, lets people work on an online document simultaneously; changes are continuously saved so there’s no confusion over multiple versions. The big downside: If you need phone support for anything other than the site being down, you’re pretty much out of luck.

A free version of Google Apps supports up to 50 users; after that, the cost is $50 per user, per year, which includes more admin controls, phone and e-mail support for what it calls “critical issues,” and a service-level agreement promising 99.9% uptime, with credits if Google doesn’t meet that.

>> Chatter is part of the Salesforce SaaS platform, with a feature set similar to Yammer’s. Chatter offers group collaboration, some messaging, document sharing, and even some dashboarding. Basic collaboration features are free for Salesforce customers–a company that subscribes to Salesforce CRM can extend it free to all its employees, even if they don’t use the CRM tool. Premium features, including basic CRM, cost $15 per user, per month. Salesforce is a major CRM SaaS vendor, so Chatter might be a way to mesh two of the competing priorities at many SMBs: improving collaboration, and getting new tools out to help sales staff. For example, an employee can use Chatter to “follow” any record in the Salesforce CRM, much like a person follows someone’s posts on Facebook. That means if you’re following a customer account, and someone adds data to that field–a complaint, a new sale, a change in personnel–you’re notified via Chatter.

>> SharePoint Online Services. We’ve mentioned this Microsoft product, since it’s something of a default choice for many considering collaboration, and our list wouldn’t be complete without it. At $10 per user, per month for the whole bundle of SharePoint, Exchange, OCS, and Office Live Meeting Online services, Microsoft is offering some pretty good value compared with what it would cost to purchase conventional licenses and deploy those same services to run in your own data center.

>> GoodData. GoodData refers to its software as BI PaaS (business intelligence platform as a service). It offers a range of tools and services for data mart reporting, analysis, and dashboarding. In terms of collaboration, GoodData is more about sharing data and dashboards than Facebook-like messaging, updates, and profiles. It offers several pricing levels based on variables that include the number of data marts, the number of records, the number of users, and the extent of the support package.

>> iDashboard. Another reporting and BI tool that can be purchased as either on-premises software or SaaS, iDashboard has some visually stunning dashboards that leverage Flash to make reports really pop. The vendor doesn’t disclose pricing on its site.

How do you manage small projects that are not part of PMI methodologies?

Drive Revenue

Productivity gains are just a starting point. These tools get really exciting when they help drive revenue, add customers, and extract great ideas from teams internally.

For example, suppose a company needs to come up with a slogan for an upcoming product launch. It could go the traditional route, hire a marketing company, or it could host an employee contest using its collaboration tools. You’d be engaging more employees in a particular business problem and possibly uncovering hidden talent.

Ford recently did something similar, using software from Inkling to encourage employees to “bid” on possible product extensions, creating a stock-market-like environment to predict which would succeed. Using those results and other inputs, it decided to kill some ideas, such as a Ford-branded bike rack, before they got to the customer focus-group stage.

SMBs don’t have the scale of a Ford, of course, but they can derive the same kind of impact. If your employees are spread across a number of offices, e-mail gets clumsy quickly when trying to rally the troops to a cause. Here are just a few ideas on how to use internal group collaboration tools to extract value:

>> Post a thread asking for the most egregious example of wasteful spending within the company.

>> Ask all employees to put on the CEO hat and come up with their best revenue-generating idea.

>> Have IT post a thread asking which services or tools would help people do their jobs better.

>> Start a forum that dissects the strengths and weaknesses of key competitors, so that groups can see perspectives from different parts of the company, such as sales and R&D.

You don’t need a seven-figure IT budget or a massive SharePoint deployment to achieve some of the same group collaborative results that big business realizes. If the tools IT selects are easy to use and your employees buy into using them, you can achieve some powerful results.

Prepare For Obstructionists

But don’t expect universal applause and adoration for your efforts to improve collaboration. Lots can go wrong along the way, and you’ll make some missteps and encounter some resistance.

IT managers must anticipate the resistors early on. For example, suppose you want to provide your CEO a glitzy Flash-based dashboard that reveals the company’s daily cash position, along with several other key financial metrics. Great idea, right?

But getting access to that data will require the help of your CFO, who might balk at reporting financial data in real time without any additional context. Pick any similar metric, and you can envision a business unit leader wanting to control the information flow, particularly when the data conveys bad news. Yet there’s tremendous value to be realized in sharing such information, at least with a select audience.

Giving each constituency something they want can go a long way toward building strong coalitions. If your CFO isn’t immediately interested in playing nice, discuss the data that he or she would like an earlier or deeper glimpse into, such as the sales pipeline. Or perhaps the sales VP would benefit from earlier insight into R&D or product development effort. Each department leader should have some interest in seeing the metrics and ideas coming out of other disciplines. (Of course, logical thinking might be irrelevant in highly political and overly competitive environments.)

While you may hit political and organizational roadblocks, the cost of getting started shouldn’t be one of them. With SaaS and per-user, per-month pricing now well accepted, SMBs don’t have to sit on the sidelines envying the technical advantage of their larger competitors. The biggest challenge you’ll face is picking the collaboration product or products that work for your employees, partners, and customers.