What the @#!$ Are Collaboration Suites, and Do I Need One?

One thing about the modern economy -- there is no shortage of inventive people out to solve every problem we have, imagine we have, or didn't know we had. And they're a little too happy to let you know all about it (pharmaceutical companies, this means you). Nowhere is this more true than in the world of tech. A case in point: "collaboration suites." They sound so cool and "techy." But what are they and why should managers and companies care?

My recent post about how e-mail will soon go the way of the dinosaur got a lot of comments. Most of them were from the blogging minions of software companies announcing that, of course email is dying and their solution will be the best replacement. While I'm happy to hear from you all and it's an important discussion to have, I think that some explanations are in order so we normal people can follow the conversation.

What are "collaboration suites"? There are almost as many definitions of these tools as there are tools. To show you how confusing this is, if you try to find a definition of "collaboration software" in the usually reliable PCMag dictionary, you get "Software that allows people to work together on the same documents and projects over local and remote networks. Lotus Notes is considered the father of "groupware," which was the first term coined to describe collaborative software. Also called "social software," collaborative software embraces the communications systems as well, including e-mail, videoconferencing, instant messaging and chat." There, isn't that better?

In other words, think of the myriad ways you communicate as a team. Anything that happens over the web or via computer or smart phone is a collaboration tool. Suites just consolidate all those tools for three primary reasons. The first is to make sure that everything works with everything else. The second is there's a single provider which makes training and budgeting easier. The third, quiet as it's kept, is to keep your IT department from freaking out. Imagine everyone choosing their own tools and then demanding that it work with everything else on your network and, oh by the way, if anything goes wrong or I don't know what I'm doing, I expect the IT folks to handle it for me. That way lies madness.

Are they expensive? These suites run the gamut from the free or at least dirt cheap to the very pricey. The low-end solutions are inexpensive, with the kind of tech support you'd expect for that kind of money (Google apps is a great example). The high-end products tie to all your other enterprise systems like Oracle or Salesforce.com and can have very hefty price tags, but rest assured they're cheaper than flying everyone to the Mandalay Bay in Vegas for a meeting every other week (although not by much).

How do we decide what to use? There is no magic bullet, although I bet you the people who work for the software providers will tell you differently. As you cruise the sites and compare, here are the questions you need to keep in mind:

  • How should your team work together? Notice I didn't say how they work together now, since the idea is to improve how you work now. Identify the behaviors you want your people to exhibit and then figure out what tools will help them do that best. If they're scattered around in home offices, you probably don't need to look at high-end video conferencing capability...unless it's the CEO's home.
  • Do you need something that will support the entire company, or are you just going team by team? Going enterprise-wide will help you get consistency and a better price per head. It will also take months of RFPs and you'll be well into 2011 by the time you're up and running. Smaller companies tend to be cheaper and more agile. Big companies will be around for a while and have real tech support. Both have their charms.
  • Who should I look at? For comparison purposes,here is a list of collaboration tools with links to their websites. Feel free to post comments with your opinion or suggestions.
Lotus Notes
Google Apps
Let the learning commence!

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