Working Apart While Working Together – Collaboration in the SMB

Working Apart While Working Together – Collaboration in the SMB

Looking at examples from around the world, it seems as though the concept of working together is often given lip service. We only have to look at our own political system where the acrimony between Republicans and Democrats on either side of the aisle many times gets in the way of getting anything done. However, I don’t want to delve into an op/ed piece. With the stresses in the business economy today, it becomes paramount for businesses of all sizes to find ways to be more efficient and productive. According to the article “Moving Beyond Email-The Era of SMB Online Collaboration Suites,” Laurie McCabe explains that collaboration is one of the keys for SMB spending in 2011. (McCabe, Aggarwal, & Aggarwal, 2010)

But what is collaboration? The Merriam-Webster definitions, from the verb collaborate, are as follows:

  1. To work jointly with others or together, especially in an intellectual endeavor.
  2. To cooperate with or willingly assist an enemy of one’s country and especially an occupying force.
  3. To cooperate with an agency or instrumentality with which one is not immediately connected. (Merriam-Webster)

I think for the purpose of this article we’ll ignore number two as I am reasonably certain that my readers are not leaking company secrets to their most bitter competitors. Collaboration in the small and mid-sized organization tracks closer to definitions one and three and in many cases contains elements of both.

Business collaboration in the “old days” was based on personal contact. Sales were done with a presentation and a handshake while internal decisions were made in the board room. Of course technology was much simpler then too, and for many businesses the most sophisticated piece of hardware was the telephone! As technology became more pervasive it became a staple in day-to-day operations.

From sales to manufacturing to shipping and receiving, the acceleration of gadgets and processes made everything faster and bigger, but this revolution, exacerbated by the introduction and rapid takeover of the personal PC, allowed for companies to grow rapidly and move away from the concept of “the company next door.” This changed the selling process making it less personal and also spread workers across towns, states and even oceans, so the need for tools to promote and simplify collaboration became more prevalent.

In the article “Moving Beyond Email-The Era of SMB Online Collaboration Suites,” Laurie McCabe states the area of collaboration in the SMB may be the most rapidly accelerating technology group. (McCabe, Aggarwal, & Aggarwal, 2010) McCabe continues with “collaboration is probably the only business activity that every employee in every company engages in every day. Until recently, a few tools such as email, calendars, document sharing and the phone were all SMBs needed for collaboration. But in an age of information overload, generational shifts in the workforce, new collaboration technologies and an explosion in mobile devices, many SMBs are seeking effective and integrated collaboration tools to streamline collaboration and keep everyone updated and on the same page.” (McCabe, Aggarwal, & Aggarwal, 2010) I can’t add much to Laurie McCabe’s statement, because every day I see organizations that could benefit from an integrated process. Having the tools to do that can only be a positive as long as they are not a drag on the bottom line.

If email, document sharing, and the telephone are “old school,” what are the next gen steps to a greater collaborative environment? Clearly the ability to work together regardless of location becomes an offshoot of the continued move towards mobility, telecommuting, and real-time actions. Vendors are leaping into the arena with spears pointed, hoping that the gladiator coming out of the tunnel doesn’t have a greater armament at their disposal. When you look at the companies that are entering the market, you can’t help but think some will be better capitalized in R&D to create the tools and keep them updated and moving forward. Industry giants like Microsoft, Cisco (SBCS), IBM (LotusLive), Google and VMware (with Zimbra) have all brought offerings to the table and they all seem to be taking different roads to the same destination; a full suite of applications and technologies that become pervasive in all aspects of the business. They are not alone. Other offerings include HyperOffice, Zoho, OnePlace and’s Chatter, but the major players remain the dominant forces for now because they have the name recognition and some robust capabilities.

Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Suite(BPOS) takes existing on-premise tools like Exchange, SharePoint, LiveMeeting and Office Communications Server and rolls them into an on-demand, online consumable resource. Microsoft has already announced the next wave of this tool called Office365 which rolls in industry-leading Office applications like Word, Excel and PowerPoint into an online portal along with VoIP server Lync. This appears to be a direct response to the challenge they have faced from Google’s Apps for Business which they tout as “free” or close to it. In each case, a customer can develop portals for document sharing and email and share them with other team members.

Having a robust internal collaboration suite is only part of it. Companies would like to be able to share with their customers and prospects, and in many cases are trying to carry on relationships across states, countries or even continents. This can put a major budgetary strain on an organization that requires costly travel expenses to continue the “personal touch.” Thus, VoIP and video conferencing are now more important if not crucial. You might argue that audio and video conferencing has been around for a long time, and indeed it has, but the quality of the technology has only recently made it an option for face-to-face negotiations that feel like you are sharing the room. Cisco was one of the big drivers with their TelePresence technology. Taking a step way beyond the existing leaders like Polycom and Tandberg, Cisco’s offering allowed for custom-built suites to connect via the ever-increasing bandwidth availability in high definition with cameras that track the movements of the speakers as well as their voices. However, with a per-room price tag over $300,000, this was not a direction the typical SMB would be able to follow.

With budget limitations in a struggling economy, the SMB space has had to look elsewhere. There are surely smaller if slightly less impressive options from Polycom and Tandberg which are ironically now a part of the Cisco empire since their 2010 acquisition. Cisco didn’t leave out the web-based conferencing and collaboration from their acquisition scheme. When they acquired WebEx, they gained one of the leaders in online meetings and shares. Not alone, Microsoft’s LiveMeeting has been a player as well as Citrix’ GoToMeeting. These applications allow you to create web conferences and share desktops and presentations to large numbers of attendees, and if recorded, archived for future viewing.

While web conferencing generally includes voice through the interface, a microphone or some other device was necessary to get the message to the attendees! In many cases this has been accomplished with a simple phone call, but with the need for agility and sometimes quick decisions, collaboration in the organization must be even easier.

It’s great to incorporate audio, but what about sharing a proposal or drawing? Or in the medical arena where a clinic in a remote region needs a doctor to make an immediate diagnosis based on an X-ray? On-demand communications can fill that role. In some cases, simply having the ability to send an “instant message” to another user can suffice as in the case of a salesman needing information to close an appointment with a tenuous prospect who might hang up if put on hold. With the ability to quickly compose an Instant Message that pops on a manager’s screen for an immediate reply can mean the difference between a deal lost or won.

While that might be good enough for some, “on-demand” video and audio may be the answer for others. Without the expense of the Telepresence technology, many SMBs can accomplish what they need through “unified communications.” Both Microsoft and Cisco are battling for the lead with their individual offerings. Cisco’s UC line allows video phones to be on the desks of employees, and turn a Cisco Instant Message directly to a video call with the touch of a button. Microsoft’s Lync Communications Server (the renamed Office Communications Server) does much the same though it’s a bit more hardware-agnostic when it comes to what devices can be used for the calls and video. There are other options as well, some from industry stalwarts like Polycom and others from newer players.

It all sounds great, but with these new tools comes extra responsibility to assure the network remains safe and secure. In the article “Collaboration tools offer success – and risks,” Carboni explains the opportunities available to SMBs via equalizing technology are very real. The threats are very real too, even if you feel invincible. Today it is possible to obtain the best of both worlds – amazing technology solutions and a secure infrastructure. (Carboni, 2007) Carboni goes on to outline a five-step approach to evaluating and incorporating these enhancements which have grown in stature and complexity since he authored his opinions four years ago. As with anything, ignoring the risks to your network and general security can have grave consequences.

The bottom line is that the tools are there and the SMB space is clamoring for them. With budgets freeing up little by little, there are groups dipping their toes into the water, but you have to ensure there isn’t a shark lurking under the surface to pull you down and devour you. Do the due diligence, and check it out for yourself to see if the return on your investment doesn’t justify taking the plunge. It’s a big ocean, so why not take a dip?

Works Cited

Carboni, E. (2007, June 1). Collaboration tools offer success – and risks. Retrieved June 11, 2011, from SC Magazine

McCabe, L., Aggarwal, A., & Aggarwal, S. (2010, September). Moving Beyond Email: The Era of SMB Online Collaboration Suites. Retrieved June 11, 2011, from SMB Group

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Definition of Collaborate. Retrieved July 2011, from