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Connecting Multiple Offices

Small and mid-size businesses no longer need to struggle with connecting satellite locations and ensuring proper collaboration and access.
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The ubiquity of broadband has made it possible to trade the home office for a troupe of laptop-wielding employees spread all over the globe, but creating such a network can be tricky because there are so many options.

Security is always a concern, as is cost, as is reliability.  As Chris Moody, president of Boston-based collaboration software maker Aquent on Demand notes, the claim “98 percent uptime” sounds good until you run the numbers. “You’re talking about a few days a year,” he says, which can be damaging to a growing business. Plus there’s the eternal debate of whether to buy software or subscribe to a hosted service.

Tools needed to network

Nevertheless, there has never been a better time to connect remote offices. The array of collaboration software tools seems limitless. But before setting up a network that links bureaus to a main office, Erica Driver, principal analyst with Forrester Research, of Cambridge, Mass., suggests taking the following steps:

Use hosted services if you don’t have the IT resources to run the software in-house.

Employ a team collaboration tool for multi-person projects and team activities. Features for such a tool include a document repository, team workspaces, discussion threads, basic library services (like check in/check out), ad hoc workflow, application templates like project management, news alerts and surveys. Driver recommends vendors like Aquent, BaseCamp, EMC, IBM (which offers QuickPlace), Microsoft (Groove, SharePoint) and WebEx, among others, for these services.

Tap Web 2.0 technologies for social computing to help people find and communicate with each other and find and interact with the information they need. Such applications include blogs, wikis, tagging, syndication, shared bookmarks, social networking and mashups. Vendors for this type of software include Blogtronix, eTouch Systems, FlexWiki, MediaWiki and Traction Software, among others.

Use real-time collaboration software so that interactions can be, in fact, real-time. Real-time collaboration features include presence, instant messaging, Web conferencing, white boarding, voice conversations, and videoconferencing. Such applications include Adobe’s Acrobat Connect, Skype and AOL’s Instant Messenger, among others.

Connecting remote staff members

Of all the applications, instant messaging (IM) may be one of the most valuable, Moody says. “Instant messaging is a huge one,” he says. “We rely on IMs spread across six different cities.” Best of all, IM software can be free.

But the best collaborative software solution strongly correlates with the type of business you run. Steve Marinetto, senior director of creative services for k12, a Herndon, Va., firm that specializes in curriculum development for elementary schools, says Aquent’s RoboHead has worked well for him since he signed up for the hosted service about six months ago as a tool for his 20-person office.

Marinetto pays a monthly fee for the software. Aquent’s prices for such applications are on a per-user basis and charged per month. RoboHead lets employees in remote offices log in at the beginning of the day and get a list of their assignments. “I have some people that work flex time in shop and at home and it works great,” he says. “It’s a project management tool that’s terrific at scheduling resources and projects.”




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