Douglas Shimp has five employees he rarely sees, but works closely with everyday. His consulting firm, 3 Back, based in Milwaukee, Wis., offers training and coaching to help software development teams increase their agility and productivity.

Shimp and his colleagues would have a very hard time doing what they do without a set of collaborative software tools that allow his fanned-out team to work seamlessly with each other as if they were all in the same office together. "We rely, for example, on our wiki tool heavily," Shimp says. "It allows us to collaborate with each other on the road when we're working with clients, whether it's sharing documents or sharing a development problem."

A wiki is a special kind of website that allows multiple users to add or revise content collectively. Wikis are just one example of so-called collaborative software. Other popular applications include instant messaging, file sharing, Web conferencing, blogs and team spaces.

Social networks

These technologies, and numerous others, are being combined in ways to turn offices into social networks of co-workers, clients, vendors and contractors pocketed individually literally anywhere in the world.

And if the sales figures on the collaborative software market are any indication, it's transforming the workplace as we know it. According to Gartner, of Stamford, Conn., the combined markets of collaborative software, instant messaging and Web conferencing for business worldwide was more than $1.3 billion last year and is expected to grow another 17 to 20 percent this year.

Some of the more popular offerings on the market include:

Microsoft SharePoint and Groove 2007 : Prices for both of these collaboration software packages start at $299. These products may especially appeal to small and mid-size business owners "since most of these companies have a Microsoft infrastructure already in place," points out Michael Speyer, a senior analyst from Forrester Research, of Cambridge, Mass.

Ezenia: Collaboration software prices start at just under a thousand dollars, server packages between $5,000 and $10,000. Features include audio chat in real time and a virtual whiteboard

Tomoye: The company doesn't publish its prices, since their products are often bundled with consulting services. However, it's "communities of practice" approach is worth a read on the corporate website.

WebEx's WebOffice: A modest pricing tier available for small and mid-size businesses will make this more palatable for the bottom line. Starting prices begin at $60 a month for up to five seats. Features include the ability to customize shared databases, online calendaring, Web meetings, online group polls and a task manager tool.

Plan for online polls and audio chat

Shared white boards, online polls, live chat with audio? For the business owner with a sweet tooth for tech candy, there can be irresistible pull to commit to collaboration tools without thinking through whether it's a worth while investment. Tom Eid, a vice president of research at Gartner, sees it all the time. "Usually people jump to the technology first," Eid says. "Companies need to have a plan in place first that everyone on the team agrees to."

Eid advises managers to consider the following questions in advance:

  • Purpose -- Who makes up this new community and what is their common purpose?
  • Determining roles --Who is sponsoring the community? What department? Who will be the moderator and the participants?
  • Tools -- What tools does the team need? What tools are bundled into the software that they don't need and might present a time drain if abused? What kind of training is involved?
  • Access -- Who needs permission to see what?
  • Lifecycle --What's the start and end date of each project or initiative? How will the team decide when it's time to mothball content to avoid a data pileup?

So what kinds of businesses benefit the most from these technologies? "Basically any business with a design or content element is a likely fit for collaboration software" Eid says. "Anyone who has something to share: lawyers, graphic designers, sales staff, even government contractors."