Which online collaboration tool should I use?


I see this question being asked a lot, and I've realised this is akin to asking a stranger 'Which vehicle should I buy?'. What's the answer: Ferarri? Hatchback? Lorry? Bicycle? Motorcycle? Without knowing what you will use it for, it's impossible to answer. And even if you tell me you want a family car to cart your kids around and run errands, the best answer depends on factors such as whether price is more important than fuel economy, whether you have 6-foot-tall teenagers or triplet toddlers, and ultimately, which one feels most comfortable to you when behind the wheel.

So the answer to 'which tool' has almost nothing to do with which tool is the 'best', and everything to do with what it is that you are trying to achieve, and with whom. The very words 'online collaboration' could have lots of different meanings:

  • I want to share documents online, and let others edit them
  • I want to have meetings online instead of travelling for face-to-face meetings
  • I want to manage a project that has lots of remote stakeholders, and easily keep everyone up-to-date
  • I want to be able to easily track all of the things my team and our external partners are working on together
  • I want a central place where all the discussions and files about a project can be stored and accessed

and so on.

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending Netsquared's London NetTuesday meetup which was focused on online collaboration. A representative from Huddle (Andy, I think?) was there, and he did a good job of covering what are the potential benefits of online collaboration, as well as covering the main features available. I think Andy and I are in agreement that the best tool depends on many factors, so I'm going to summarise his and my tips on how to choose the best tool for your needs.

What is it that you are trying to achieve?

Are you trying to save time - if so, whose time? Increase a sense of unity within a team? Cut down on resource-heavy meetings? Stop things slipping through the cracks by centralising information? Move away from email? Any of these are valid goals, and it's a good idea to make note of your aims before you even start looking for a product. Make sure you revisit this at every stage of the way to ensure you are still on track to achieving it.

What tasks/processes do you need to perform?

Make a list of all the actions you/your team need to do, and prioritise the list into essentials and nice-to-have. It's important to be as specific as possible, and make sure you are listing human actions rather than technical functions. For example:

Good: Ability for remote team members to communicate through text, not necessarily in real-time

Bad: Online forum

Why? Because the former is open and could be achieved in different ways (forum, wiki, chat room, etc). Stating something like 'online forum' is limiting, and is a statement of the tool (I want a handsaw) rather than the need (I need to cut wood). Limiting yourself in this way closes doors that could have led to better ways of achieving the same thing.

Who will be using it?

Are they technical or non-techie, based in one location or geographically dispersed, mature Sales Directors or young Office Assistants, native English-speakers or not, enthusiastic communicators or isolated solo-flyers? Many tools available can perform the same function, but the best one for your needs depends on who will use it, and how often. Also be sure to think about how they will be trained on the tool.

Who will be supporting it?

Many people make the mistake in thinking that externally-hosted online tools need no user support within the business. I think this is the number one factor contributing to failure of the tool being used and adopted. While it's true most of these tools are very easy to use, and most offer some level of support from the supplier, you should always factor in having someone act as user support within the organisation. This person needs to act as the point-person for questions, training, adoption & embedding. They don't have to be technical - tech questions can usually be referred on to the supplier - but they do have to be patient, good communicators, and pro-active. In large organisations, it pays to have a 'champion' like this in each department, with one overall administrator/super-champion.

What is the scale / duration of your project?

If you just need something for a few team members working on a short, fixed-term project, you can afford to choose a tool without much research aside from the above. However, if you are looking to create a permanent extra/intranet or manage a long-term programme with many stakeholders, you should consider going through a full evaluation process, including setting up trial accounts and gathering feedback on a few products before making your decision.

What is your budget?

The costs of online collaboration tools range from free to several thousands of pounds. The more expensive ones are not always 'better', but they do tend to come with greater levels of tech support... and often, greater levels of complexity that you may or may not need. But don't be put off by free/cheap fees: many online tools operate on a volume basis so you might be surprised to find complex, feature-rich products even at the lowest price point.

How quickly do you need it?

Many tools can be set up within a few mouse clicks, while others will require installation and configuration. Weigh up the benefits of quick setup on an entirely external server, versus those of having something installed that your tech support team can have access to. How will the data be backed up? Can we survive if the tool is temporarily unavailable due to maintenance? How easy is it to get our data in and out? Or do we just need to get on with it NOW?

Do you have other systems to consider?

Would it be beneficial for your online collaboration tool to link in with Outlook, Google Calendar, LinkedIn or Facebook? Do you have existing internal data storage systems that will need to feed into (or out from) your new online collaboration environment - how will this happen, and is it even possible? Can you achieve what you want by simply changing the way we use existing tools or bolting on new modules, rather than bringing another different tool into the mix? It's worth bearing these important questions in mind because the answers can have long-term ramifications.

I hope the above will help you in evaluating which tool is best for you. In a future post, I will try to mention a few 'best of breed' tools that you might want to look at for various different online collaboration needs. Remember, the best way to determine which car is best for you is to take it on a test-drive: no amount of good advice can replace putting yourself behind the wheel.