These days you can find a lot of advice about how to use public social media—such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter—for marketing your company to prospective customers, partners, and employees.
However, small- to midsize businesses can also take a cue from larger companies and gain solid benefits from using social and collaboration tools for internal purposes.
A small company might not need its own internal version of Facebook, but with the trend towards more geographically-dispersed teams, staff telecommuting, and ad-hoc partnerships, a growing number of companies need a way to better connect workers digitally. My own firm has 14 employees spread across eight cities in three countries. We depend on collaboration tools to get our work done every day.
Fortunately many collaboration and social networking vendors target the SMB marketplace. But before you start looking at suppliers, you'll want to get a general sense for usefulness of different types of tools.
Collaboration and Social Networking Technologies: The Top 5 Tools
Somewhere in your organization, you are probably already using the five most popular types of collaboration and networking tools. They are:
• File Sharing. File-sharing is the mother of all digital collaboration. When people work together, inevitably they need to share files in a more methodical way than e-mail allows. If you do nothing else, start here.
• Blogs. Blogs are great for sharing individual knowledge and experience, as well as spurring discussion, but not ideal for project-oriented collaboration.
• Wikis. Wikis are well suited to the task of creating shared documentation over time. To manage them, however, most companies find it necessary to assign an active caretaker to make sure they don't become chaotic and lose their usefulness.
• Microblogging. Think "Twitter within the company." Microblogging is better suited to group interaction than instant messaging. Services such as Yammer can help employees share Facebook-like status messages such as "Remember, I'm on vacation tomorrow." It is important to set expectations for when microblogging is and isn't appropriate; it is not well suited for more complicated discussions, for example.
• Forums. Discussion forums or "bulletin boards" are among the oldest collaborative tools, and still very useful for sharing and discussing ideas around a particular topic, like "where should we open our next franchise?" Unfortunately, forums can be hard to navigate and search.
Collaboration and Social Networking Technologies: Setting Your Goals
Too often managers and employees kick off the discussion about collaboration with a discussion of specific tools, like "We need a wiki" or "let's start an internal blog." That's backwards. You should start by figuring out what you are trying to accomplish from a business perspective, then decide which corresponding tool is right for you. Here's a short list of objectives that may seem relevant for your business:
• Building a knowledgebase. You want the latest and greatest information in front of your customer service reps. A wiki could enable everyone in the company—including the reps -- to keep information up to date.
• Brainstorming and vetting new ideas. Small businesses thrive on bringing new ideas to market faster. Consider blogs or forums for sharing and vetting ideas.
• Sharing private documents with customers and partners. You may have the ability to share documents internally, but what about beyond your company? Web-based file-sharing helps you do that in a secure, auditable way.
• Managing projects more effectively. Maybe your team can't meet in person; if so, shared whiteboards and microblogging can keep everyone in touch.
• Keeping employees better connected. Work has always been social, but many employees now spend much of their time away from the office. Social tools can help people stay connected at a personal level, even when they're not meeting around a watercooler.
Collaboration and Social Networking Technologies: The Vendor Landscape
There's good news for smaller businesses here. Many collaboration vendors target the small business marketplace. In particular, you can find many hosted collaboration services, so you don't need to maintain the software yourself. Hosted solutions for internal collaboration and networking include Google Apps, Microsoft SharePoint "BPOS," Central Desktop, Yammer, Wordpress, Atlassian Confluence, and many more.
A word of caution: using a hosted solution is not always a walk in the park. Customers tell us that they sometimes run into problems with performance, uptime, usability, and search (even with Google!). Also, if your business lies in a litigious or heavily-regulated industry you'll want to carefully explore information retention and ownership concerns, and perhaps consider an on-premise installation. In the end, you have lots of choices. Investigate and test before you buy.
Collaboration and Networking Technologies: Additional Resources
About the Author
Tony Byrne is President of The Real Story Group, a buyer-focused and vendor-independent researh and advisory firm covering content management, social and community software, digital asset management, search, portal and web analytics technology. Real Story Group evaluates 27 collaboration vendors. E-mail Tony at tbyrne@realstorygroup,com, or read more about technology selection at Realstorygroup.com.