Monday, November 23, 2009

Online Collaboration

Collaboration is the key to the “human network”.  Being able to share documents, and files.  Communicating between people to share ideas vocally.  Just being able to get together, and work productively and efficiently.  The problem?  Being able to do so without being in the same location, at the same time.

There are many great tools out there that are aimed at bigger companies and corporations.  Most people do not realize that there are tools just like that aimed at small businesses of the “Ma and Pa” level.  A lot of folks do not think that such tools are required, but are quickly realizing how much they are relying on Instant Messaging, Email, Office Suites, and all around collaboration.

Generally, Email, Instant Messaging, MS Office or OpenOffice.org, along with a cell phone and/or landline suffice.  Most one to three person efforts don’t require fancy collaborative efforts as they are normally well with in the scope of handling such things without any additional software beyond that.  However, larger business’s, yet small enough unable to afford the expensive software, do need such software.  Let me introduce you to some great web apps that are generally free, to inexpensive, that I was most impressed with.

Social Networking has begun to prove its worthfulness as a collaborative environment.  However, Facebook, MySpace, and other major networks are to distracting and lack privacy to be fully productive.  To help answer that problem, one could look to such Social Networks such as Ning.com.  Ning.com allows anyone to create any social network they want.  With this, they can either open it wide for the world, or lock it down for a select group of invited people.  With this, you are offered many great tools right off that do not require much thought to set up.  These ranging between “Groups”, forums, live chat, multimedia, and user profiles.  Ning.com also offers great collaborative apps thanks to the OpenSocial movement, some of which I will cover next.

One such tool that is offered through Ning Apps is Huddle.net Workspaces.  These spaces offer great ways to share documents and files, collaborate on such files and redistribute them to everyone that is working on that workspace.  The Ning Apps version is just as feature full as the main site, but offers a bit more tighter collaboration with fellow co-workers on the network.

Another prime tool for file sharing amongst co-workers is Box.net.  It offers plenty of space for just about any thing you need up and shared with co-workers.  There is some limitations on the free users version, but you get 1 gb of storage space for free.

Want alternative methods to share documents and be able to work on them in a Word Processor type environment?  Give one of these two a whirl.  Google and Zoho.  Google Apps is a great web app that is functional, has plenty of features, and is relatively easy to use.  With Google Apps, you can set up a network for Docs, Gmail, GTalk, and more.  Best of all, you can use your own URL’s, and customize the logo.  There is versions from free to corporate.  The free version offers plenty of flexibility for small businesses.

Zoho, on the other hand, has a LOT more to offer.  However, the free service is aimed more at individuals each with their own disconnected accounts connecting to one another to collaborate.  When done as a group effort, it works, but when you want it done quickly and in one set of simple steps, it is a chore.  Zoho offers everything Google Apps offers, and then some.  Which ever one you choose will boil down to preference.

If you need Instant Messaging, your only limited to how good you can do a search.  GTalk is integrated with Google Apps, so your URL and account usernames are compatible.  Windows Live Messenger can be used with virtually any email address, as well.  AOL has AIM for Business with business related features, but requires an AOL account.  This is one that will require some research and decision making on which messenger your company would want to use.

Email is an interesting concept.  You could either set up a server that could be a hassle to maintain if you don’t want to have an IT department, or you could use hosted email.  Hosted email isn’t expensive at all.  It can be down right free even!  Google Apps offers Gmail support where you can set up your own address name, and not be restricted to the “@gmail.com” account.  Zoho offers the same thing, but on a much more limited setup, again aimed at the individual.  Other options exist, or course.  But if the small business wants the prestige of using their own internet address as the email location, those options are perhaps the best based on hosted price.

Google, however, is attempting to make major changes to how we communicate using “email” with Google Wave.  Google Wave is currently in closed beta testing where one has to await an invite from someone already using the service, much like Gmail was a few years ago.  Google Wave is a new method of interactive communication and collaboration.  The concept looks interesting, and I myself am curious as to where it will lead when released publicly.

One thing that is important in all aspects of the business world is communication with the spoken word.  Conference calling is one aspect in business that will never change in regards to whether it happens or not.  We are a vocal species that relies heavily on sharing information through the use of speech.  To do so inexpensively, however, can be difficult when it comes to the use of phones.  Most services offer three way calling, which is perfectly fine for micro-business.  However, anything that has more than three callers at a time can be a bit more difficult to endure.

One recommendation, right off, for free to inexpensive conference calling is offered by Rondee.com.  Their service is quick and reliable.  They also have a calendar that can be integrated into your favorite email client to better keep track of scheduled conference calls.

Another option is using Voice Chat via Instant Messaging.  Skype, Windows Live, Yahoo, and GTalk are wonderful options.  Each with free and paid methods.  Best yet with these options, there is no limitations to distance when using voice chat features.

For international calling needs, Skype is usually the first option for those that wish to keep expenses on the down low.  However, there is also a website that offers services to make such calls.  That site is Talkster.com.  It does require a bit more of a set up over other options, but can be worth it if you wish to not have to pay for it.  Google also offers a service that you can use a phone number to screen calls, Google Voice.  The web interface allows you to make free local calls, call forwarding, SMS, and voice mail.  Free!  To use your existing number, you will have to pay for it, also to make international calls, you will have to pay for “calling credit” as well.

All in all, there are a number of wonderful methods for one to collaborate and communicate.  What was listed here is a wonderful method for many people that do not want to install an IT department into their small business, whether because they can not afford it, or it is not justif
iable.  The services are reliable and heavily reliant on broadband high speed internet, which is fairly wide spread.  Integrating these services and learning to use them has a small learning curve, but prove to be fruitful.  Definitely something worth looking into.

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