Steve Karakas needs to stay in constant touch with his clients. Karakas is strategic branding consultant and partner at marketing firm The work they do is very visual, and changes to the design work happen all through the process -- from concept to final proof.

However, many of Nonbox's clients are thousands of miles away, from Miami to France and Finland. In fact, his partners' offices are also spread out. While Karakas is based in Portland, Ore., his Nonbox colleagues are in places as diverse as Wisconsin and Florida.

"Often, the ability to meet physically is minimal, if not impossible," says Karakas.

Nonbox has found that the key to managing collective work over long distances is collaboration tools. Almost anything that's possible in face-to-face meetings can now be done virtually through the various components of a collaboration tool suite. Long-distance communication is made more efficient and effective with the ability for long term teams as well as short-term project groups and outside contractors to work together in real-time.

New collaboration tools from vendors

Depending on the task at hand, collaborative teams need a matrix of communication tools, including e-mail, IM, forums, wikis, communal whiteboards, video, desktop sharing, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) combined with conferencing, among others. The trick is to find a vendor that offers a suite of tools that fits your business -- and your employees' -- needs.

"We tried other collaboration systems before we found the one we felt comfortable with, and being an all-Apple company, our choices were more limited," Karakas says. "We don't mind the price as long as it does the job." Karakas expects to lower or even eliminate the cost of their collaboration needs once they upgrade to the newest Apple OS X.5, Leopard, which includes a number of collaborative tools like screen-sharing, video, and slideshows.

Apple is not unique. More and more major technology providers, such as Microsoft, Cisco, and Adobe, are joining a number of startups -- like Zoho, Vyew, and Yugma -- in offering suites of tools meant to increase collaboration between workers. In fact, there seems to be an all-out race happening in the last year or so to create the next great collaboration platform that will juggernaut over the rest of the pack. With the numerous entries available, how can you decide if collaboration tools would benefit your company, and how to choose exactly the right one that will further your business, without draining your available revenue?

How to pick collaboration tools for business

All too often, companies will choose a collaboration tool based on how easy it is to implement, how much it costs, if it's compatible with what they already use, and other technical criteria, instead of the actual needs or requirements of the job at hand, and how the end users -- the employees -- tend to work. If the workers aren't going to adapt easily and really use the tools to advantage, then all the technical reasoning is meaningless. Better to understand just how your workers tend to collaborate first, and then find the tool that's right for them.

How your workers collaborate in person can provide a clue:

  • Do your in-house brainstorming sessions involve visual work, using whiteboards or printed graphics? Then make sure your team has that ability built into their tools for online collaboration.
  • Do you have documents being worked on by a group? Then perhaps using a sharable online word processor, or even a wiki, will streamline their tasks. Many teams are unofficially using some form of instant messaging, even if their company hasn't implemented that tool yet. Find out if your workers are, and make sure that's in the package as well.
  • Does your business tend to use e-mail as the primary means of textual collaboration, through attached files and memos? E-mail was never created to replace face-to-face meetings, and in the rapidly shrinking world of telecommuting and outsourcing, it's simply not the right tool for the job. Collaboration tools place e-mail in its rightful place as a messaging platform, just one component of successful group-think.

For Greg Chambers, of Chambers Product Design, Inc., it took a couple tries with different collaboration tools to find the right fit. Some worked well in one or two aspects, but fell down in others. But through trial and error, he found the right choice for his needs. While his final choice isn't the cheapest, Chambers has happily used the same collaboration tool suite for three years now.

"We needed that 'in the same room' feeling on a daily basis, no matter how far away, in order to create just what the customer wants to see," says Chambers. "It's worth every penny to make sure I'm going in exactly the right direction for my clients."