Enterprise collaboration is going mobile at a great pace as enterprise incumbents expand their existing products to add mobile support while new vendors try to energize the mobile SMB workforce.
Collaboration is Far From New
For years, one worker has rung up or emailed another, faxed them or mailed over a document and received useful input or insight by return post. It might have been a conference call, an early Web whiteboard session, but it was all about people helping each other.
Still, in the modern age, every aspect of the working day has to be branded and crafted into something marketable. So every company has a "solution" to aid collaboration -- to make it easier, more immediate or smarter. All of today's efforts are focused on the, now insidious, mobile web -- where anyone can be reached 24/7.
All of this leads to many opportunities for developers and a shopping aisle's worth of choice for companies large and small. The most likely candidates in need of collaboration tools are those who have been doing it for years anyway. Remote web or app development teams have often built their own fun little collaboration tools or sites; but as teams grow, a need for an interface and features that those outside the core team can use becomes a pressing need.
Similarly, day-to-day web workers need features that make them feel at home, they come from a world of mobile apps for Facebook and Twitter (and, let's face it, most collaboration has evolved from the evolution of the social Web, just with a business face), and expect a similar level of design efficiency and features while being able to access work documents and information without jumping through ill-designed hoops.
Approaches to Collaboration
Almost every business suite has developed a collaboration theme over the last few years and, in the rush to liberate the worker from the desk, we've seen an increase in mobile offerings, from vendors big and small. There seem to be two current approaches to collaboration:
1. Either a team within a company starts using their choice of free or cheap tools on an ad-hoc basis to get the job done. When someone senior finds out about this their reactions are usually:
- Well done, you showed initiative.
- Can we use it too?
- Crap, you didn't log everything for compliance! What if someone says something rude? What if we get sued?
2. Or, if a company launches a collaboration system the response of workers is:
- Cool, a new toy.
- Back to my day job.
- (Sometime later) I don't remember that memo.
The incoming enterprise solutions aim to cancel out both of these potential outcomes by ensuring all the big legal boxes of archiving, user identification and policy compliance are ticked. At the same time, they try to use features seen in popular social sites like Facebook, Twitter and the cloud-based startups like Campfire and Yammer to offer appealing themes for us cubicle smurfs and road warriors who have to work with them on a daily basis.
Working on the Go
Mobile Collaboration actually simplifies some of these challenges as, by their nature, all data has be stored somewhere central for all users to access -- easy to archive and since it has to go through a server or service, easy to apply ground rules and filters to.
The workers will also have a pressing need to stay in touch, further encouraging use. Many won't have time to talk, so it is often easier to send a quick message, or look up a fact via whatever collaboration service is in use. All these needs and our increasing reliance on smartphones make mobile collaboration a natural fit to many working lives.
Companies with an existing desktop solution will probably have no problem finding a mobile upgrade for it. If that isn't the case, then is it worth getting a new desktop/mobile solution or bolting a mobile one into your existing desktop collaboration tool? Let's take a look at the competing solutions and see what's what.
In the Big Boy's Corner
Apps like MS Office, tools like SharePoint and Lotus Notes and the other big league players have been the focus of much effort in creating collaboration and data sharing solutions. Huddle has been doing the business for Office and other users, offering project and people management via a series of plug-ins.
Mobile Entree is a SharePoint tool with tablet-centric features to help executives and mobile workers stay abreast of developments wherever they are. Business awareness is something that, these days, has to happen 24/7, not just week-by-week and the big players, and their partners, are offering plenty of ways to keep everyone on the same sheet.
The Cloud Breed
Soonr's Workplace has been running since 2005 and has just been updated, offering applications for the latest iPhone, iPad and Android devices. Available for just two users (for free with Soonr Lite) all the way up to thousands, it offers bags of practical features including:
- A dashboard for tracking team changes and revisions.
- Shared protected folders for different projects.
- Quick file viewing from mobiles.
- Real-time notification of changes by SMS or email.
- Automatic backup and enterprise grade security.
iPad users can collaborate with style
Fuze Box offers a more flexible approach by taking its existing Fuze Meeting and Fuze Messenger services and releasing open APIs for other developers to tie them into their existing services. Developers can use Fuze Box's existing technology and create their own custom collaboration and meeting tools based around apps with a proven track record. Again, the company highlights iPads, iPhones and Androids as the go to devices for users.
There are still plenty of big names wading into the collaboration space for enterprises to turn to. Verizon recently announced a cloud-based UCC solution, in partnership with Cisco for big business and government. Verizon's Mobile UC Client offers a single-device solution, features including single reach and voice mail numbers, while its Unified Communications-as-a-Service can be accessed on a variety of smart phones and tablets.
Advice for Business
Can You Do it for Free?
Small companies can find a wealth of cheap or free options, from simply using existing free tools (what's wrong with an invite-only Facebook page), to using a lite solution at no cost. Sure they often lack the beefier features, but do you really need them? Even a free trial can be used to help you narrow down your options and discard those your team simply doesn't "like."
Start Small and Work Up
When deploying any new application, especially one that could affect the whole working structure, you need to start with a deployment in one office, department or division. Pick one that has a high-profile project or is often busy and highly mobile, and measure its progress against a similar, but static, department to gauge improvements, look for problems (and there will always be problems) and address them before a wider roll out.
When choosing a solution, create a sheet of features you need it to do. Tick them off in rows for each product you look at. If something offers more features at the same price, consider the future and if you might use them. Look at how prices increase with the number of users and do some back-of-a-beermat sums to figure out which will be the more expensive over time.