Is your small business ready for social collaboration?

Cloud-hosted intranets are changing the way distributed teams approach their work and interactions. Near real-time communication features and file sharing are two of the most widely associated used features, according to usage trends information collected by one player, Bitrix24.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

Given the ongoing march toward distributed teams — regardless of policies such as the anti-telecommuting edict of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer — the rise of dozens of cloud-hosted collaboration and social "intranet" platforms isn't all that surprising. I'm routinely pitched by at least one new (or renewed) service every month, and I've often wondered whether they were really appropriate for small businesses of, say, fewer than 20 employees.

The common "benefit" of these services (according to the vendors developing them) is that they integrate and combine many of the separate applications you might use to organize your work, including CRM, project scheduling, document storage, and communications.

One of the legacy players focused on this space, Bitrix24 (which is a cloud initiative of Bitrix Inc in Alexandria, Virginia) recently published some data about the beta users of its social collaboration platform that is illustrative and that at least partially answers my question.

I was surprised to hear, for one thing, that the median number of users embracing the intranets enabled by the Bitrix24 is about 10. As of late February 2013, the company counted 40,000 cloud signups and 5,000 installed intranets. (It's now up to about 50,000 signups.) Of those, approximately one third are hosted by educational institutions, healthcare providers, religious organizations, and entities such as musical acts or clubs, according to the company's blog post about the data.

What are people using social intranets for? The vast majority (73 percent) of those working with Bitrix24 are using it for its activity stream and instant messaging capabilities, followed by document storage, sharing, or collaboration (27 percent). Approximately 87 percent of them believe the platform will increase employee productivity.

That finding makes sense, considering that these users have already embraced that idea by trying the service in the first place.

It also might have something to do with the fact that Bitrix24 is actually free for companies that have 12 employees or less.

CRM-centered collaboration

The latest addition to Bitrix24 is focused on CRM capabilities. "CRM users are no longer satisfied with what's essentially a database with client information — they want a CRM that allows them to plan, to collaborate with co-workers, and to increase personal productivity," said Bitrix president Dmitry Valyanov.

Working from within the Bitrix24 CRM module, a person can launch one of several different business processes related to that person (such as a marketing campaign or creating a contract).

The platform is supported by both Android and Apple iPhone apps that let users handle certain tests mobilely, including messaging, managing files and documents, and scheduling.

Integration across cloud services

LiveHive, a collaboration platform from the company of the same name (it used to be called CaptureToCloud), is also catering to the needs of small and midsized businesses (SMBs).

The service is focused on workspaces, where teams can share documents, videos, audio, and other content, as well as the conversations related to them. It offers various levels of privacy control and, like Bitrix24, touts extensive mobile support. What is particularly interesting (to me, at least) is that the service integrates directly with Google Apps and Dropbox, rather than assuming that people will agree to store everything within LiveHive.

"Today, the content we use for collaboration is stored everywhere from e-mail, social networks, cloud storage, desktops and mobile devices," said Terri McClure, senior analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group, in the materials about LiveHive's launch. "LiveHive's approach to bring all of our content together into a uniquely visual and accessible workspace should be a welcome solution that increases workflow efficiency and caters to the BYOD trend."

LiveHive prices its services based on the number of workspaces supported, as well as the number of users that can collaborate within them. The pricing starts at $8.95 per user per month for up to 400 workspaces.

An example of a LiveHive workspace on an iPad is shown below:

Image: Screenshot by Heather Clancy/ZDNet
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