By Mathew Schwartz

A number of new collaboration tools -- both standalone and delivered on-demand, with many based on Web 2.0 technologies -- enable smaller businesses to collaborate and share information and files in real time, without the typical, related costs or IT management overhead. Learn how companies are putting them to work

Don't want to install and manage SharePoint, or any other so-called enterprise groupware suite? Increasingly, you don't have to. A number of new collaboration tools -- both installed in-house or delivered on-demand, with many based on Web 2.0 technologies -- now enable smaller organizations to collaborate in online spaces, conference over the Web, and share files in real time, without the typical, related costs or IT management overhead.

Take Zeus Jones, a "non-traditional marketing firm" based in Minneapolis with 11 employees who have been using a collaboration tool called Yugma since working with a graphic designer based remotely. "It was one of those things we didn't know we needed until we started to use it," says partner Christian Erickson.

Yugma, which is available as a quick download (like many such tools, the basic version is free), provides a persistent Web conference meeting space, and also includes file and screen sharing, which Zeus Jones routinely uses for a quick, "digital look over the shoulder" of a work in progress. "We can instantly hop on and give someone immediate feedback," even when traveling, says Erickson. This approach also sidesteps the version control issues associated with swapping files or presentations.

No Suite Required

Of course, Zeus Jones isn't alone. Many companies are adopting or investigating more lightweight collaboration, communication, and workspace tools, such as standalone software for file-sharing or document collaboration, blogs for knowledge-sharing, and wikis for whiteboarding or even project management. These tools are no Notes, SharePoint, or Groove. But for many, that's the point.

Yet, are these more lightweight collaboration options up to the challenge? Many say yes. "The truth is, it's much better in the mini-services or Web 2.0-type world, to say this is what we do, we're the best at it, and we're going to offer compatibility and plug-in ability to a bunch of other services," says Erickson. "The days of 'Lotus Notes or Outlook, we use one or the other'? Those days are over."

The Medium is the Message

The increased availability of more lightweight collaboration tools, besides being an obvious offshoot of the Web 2.0 phenomenon, may also be a rebuke to enterprise groupware, which historically promised collaboration -- a one-stop shop for e-mail, document and file sharing, news, databases, and more -- but often undelivered.

According to Kara Pernice, who managed the first user experience program for the Lotus Notes Client, Designer, and Domino Server products, and is now director of research for Nielsen Norman Group, a usability consulting firm, "if you think about Lotus Notes, that really shot itself in the foot, with its proprietary elements, and the difficulty of administering it." Later, some of the Notes team produced Groove, "which was trying to be this cool, hip thing, but the user interface side didn't quite hit the mark."

Interface flaws aside, she says these programs are used to good effect in some organizations. Yet their failings also point to what's essential for a collaboration tool to succeed: It needs to be easy to deploy, not too proprietary, and easy for IT to manage.

All that aside, "what makes something catch like wildfire? A lot of it really is the interface," she notes. "You have to feel like this is better than e-mail, picking up the phone, or stopping by someone's desk, and inflicting a difficult interface on someone isn't going to be a better choice for people."

That Wiki Look

In fact, some of the most successful interfaces are decidedly not fancy. For example, take TWiki, a free, open source wiki for workplace collaboration that includes access and revision control, as well as audit trails. One example of how it's being used is at a design division of Texas Instruments in India, as a Web-based repository for all project information; more than 400 employees are registered users. According to one member of the design team, however, some of his co-workers "still argue that TWiki is a rather free-format Web-authoring tool and not the ideal choice for managing critical [project] information," and have pushed for Microsoft SharePoint or Office Enterprise Project Management instead, "which they perceive [to be] more structured and sophisticated." In response, designers added more structured templates to the wiki, to give all wiki "projects Webs" a similar look and feel, at least at upper navigation levels.

As that implies, wikis are very adaptable, and if they don't look like much -- they tend to be text-heavy -- TWiki's creator, Peter Theony, says that's by design. His motto: "please keep it simple, [and] don't make it complicated to use."

Going the "Mature" Route

As TWiki demonstrates, some collaboration tools are more pedigreed than others, and this may be critical for collaboration software that will support key business processes. For example, for over four years, London-based Fractal:Edge, a 12-person software developer of visualization tools for capital markets, has used browser-based collaboration software called Sosius as "a common space to coordinate our activities with external parties -- team members who are off-site, partners, and customers," says Gervase Clifton-Bligh, VP of product strategy and development.

Fractal:Edge uses Sosius as an access-controlled file-sharing and download center for product specifications, demos, user guides, customer information, and private customer areas. Developers, all of whom work remotely and from as far away as Australia, also use Sosius to blog about their current activities. This helps managers track developers' productivity and plan new projects.

From Packaged to SaaS

Recently, Fractal:Edge upgraded from an on-premises to a SaaS version of Sosius. Now, "we don't have to worry about scalability or uptime on our side of the service -- they have that covered -- and it provides a very, very cost-effective solution," says Clifton-Bligh. In particular, pricing is based on utilization, not users, which is important for a firm with several thousand "users," counting employees, partners, and customers.

Without a tool such as Sosius, the likely alternative would have been customizing Microsoft SharePoint, and costly --"I'm 'guestimating' at least £20,000 [U.S. $40,000] to get it going and £5,000 [U.S. $10,000]/year thereafter," he says, versus "very low thousands [of pounds] per year" with Sosius via SaaS.

Perhaps what's most interesting about both the past and current approaches, however, is that Fractal:Edge ties its own software applications directly into Sosius. For example, when users report bugs or register the product from a Fractal:Edge application, it updates a Sosius database, which then alerts relevant employees. As a result: This information is reliably stored in one location, and everyone at Sosius knows where it is.

Don't Obsess Over Tools

That points to perhaps the most important aspect of collaboration. Namely, what matters most isn't the choice of tool or technology -- each will have its good and bad points -- but rather enticing people to use and rely on one tool. "There's something to be said for having one place for everything: whether it's in Notes, or an intranet, or a homegrown solution," says Pernice. "It's like picking a husband. He's not going to be perfect, but once you pick him, go for it."


Mathew Schwartz has covered IT and business topics for more than 10 years as a journalist, researcher, and editor. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Boston Globe, Computerworld, Information Security Magazine, InformationWeek, the London Times, and Wired News.

Tool Talk: Collaboration

More on the collaboration tools mentioned in this story:

Sosius

  • Features: Browser-based workspaces include blogs, calendaring, chat, databases, document management, RSS feeds, project and task management, and more.
  • Pricing: Basic plan (200 MB storage, 500 MB/month transfer, unlimited users/workspaces) is free, while plans offering additional storage, bandwidth, and also APIs, begin at $15/month.
  • Extra: Use customized CSS (cascading style sheets) to co-brand Sosius for your company.

TWiki

  • Features: Browser-based wiki with access and revision control, and audit trails, among other features, for corporate collaboration and knowledge-sharing, project management, or even to serve as an intranet.
  • Price: Free license (open source), no tech support, though third parties offer consulting and coding services.
  • Extra: Enhance TWiki functionality with server-side extensions.

Yugma

  • Features: Lightweight application (Windows/Mac/Linux) provides persistent workspace for virtual meetings or webinars (recordable), chat, whiteboarding, file sharing, screen sharing, and more.
  • Pricing: Basic plan is free, with additional business and enterprise features starting at $19.95/month for 20 attendees.
  • Extra: Functions as a Skype plug-in.