CTOedge: Better Collaboration Tools Than Google

Google has certainly been busy building a lot of different software tools that can be used for collaboration, including Google Docs, Google Voice, Google Sites (formerly Jotspot), and Google Calendar. But there are a number of specialized tools that are more useful than these Google services for particular circumstances. These can be big productivity boosts for enterprises. Before we take a closer look, let’s explore three simple reasons why it is worthwhile to bother with any of these technologies:

  • First, they can help cut down on email back-and-forth. While we all love and use email, sometimes we don’t use it to our best advantage. How many emails does it take to schedule a meeting? Approve a document? Work on a presentation for a client? These collaboration technologies can move these and other common tasks into the fast lane and prevent inbox build up.
  • Second, they help build connections to remote workers. As organizations become more geographically distributed, you need better ways to tie workers together. Yes, Instant Messaging was a good first step, but that is just useful for finding out if someone is near his or her computer. These tools take things to the next level and actual make it easier for two or three people to work together in real time, no matter where they might be sitting.
  • Finally, save money. It doesn’t hurt that many of these technologies are cheap or free to implement and don’t require months of IT staff time, requirements documents, and training. Many of them are easy to use, running inside a Web browser with little else required, and can be quickly deployed. None of these require special skills and even the more complex features can be learned on the fly as interest increases in the service. Think instant ROI and paybacks measured in hours or days.

Let’s look at six common tasks and the difference between the Google technology and one that might be better suited for that particular purpose:

  • One of the Google services that is getting a lot of coverage is Google Wave, which is a combination of wiki, real-time messaging and real-time shared typing so several people can collaborate on a document. You can “playback” the conversation to see what happened in the past. This is Mashable’s analysis and perhaps a good place to start. Here is another article by Frank Olhorst. Given that Wave is free but in limited release, by invitation only for the moment, a better alternative might be SocialText, which offers a similar collection of services for $15 per user per month.
  • Schedule a common meeting. Google Calendar is a great tool if you and your spouse want to share a common family calendar, or if you still have an assistant that can schedule your meetings for you. But if you are trying to converge on a particular time in the near future to hold a meeting, then it really doesn’t work. There are a number of tools that can do this more easily, and the one that I like is Setmeeting.com. The meeting organizer sets up a few basic parameters and the service sends out an initial invite email and keeps things organized, without clogging your inbox with a lot of back-and-forth.
  • Work on a document in real-time. Google Docs makes it easy to create and upload a Word-compatible document with a decent amount of fonts and frippery if you must. But what if several colleagues have to co-author the document? Then it is less useful. A free service called Etherpad.com allows you to see real-time edits to the same document, with each author’s contribution highlighted in a different color, and an IM-like messaging window off to the side if you want to communicate quick thoughts. I used this to create a document from scratch within an hour with a group of people that would have taken us days at best without it. There are paid versions that operate behind corporate firewalls too.
  • Create presentation slides. Yes, Google Docs has the ability to upload and share a series of PowerPoint slides. But if you want to collect several presentations together, share comments on them, and add an audio track, then take a look at Slideshare.net which has these features and is free, too.
  • Post to a discussion forum. Google Groups has been around for some time. It allows ad-hoc creation of discussion groups and many people have used them for creating their own communities. The popularity of Twitter has brought several new players into the field, including most notably Yammer.com, which sets up private discussion forums behind corporate firewalls using the same 140-character style interface. The cost is a mere $1 per person per month. There are more than a dozen different such services, and Laura Fitton has a great comparison guide here.
  • Share a spreadsheet. Again, Google Docs allows you to upload your spreadsheets quite easily, but how about when more than one person wants to work on your formulas or create different reports from the data? That is where SmartSheet comes into play. And at $10/month for sharing up to ten spreadsheets, it is a very reasonable application to build simple databases that don’t require a lot of programming support. You can even attach specific files to particular cells in the sheet and there are pre-made templates for project tracking and surveys too.

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