For SMEs in particular, budgets are tight, and IT budgets are even tighter. This can make it hard for a company to buy into new technologies that could change the way the enterprise works. With only so much cash to go round, it’s important to establish that the business benefits of collaboration tools outweigh the results of spending the money on something more tangible -- a new sales outlet, a new truck or several new employees, for example.
The key to selecting the right collaboration solution for your enterprise is the realisation that these tools can do more than help people communicate better. They can also play an important role in solving many immediate business needs. For example, by removing barriers to team work and promoting communication, collaboration tools can help to drive costs out of the supply chain, assist in managing regulatory compliance and improve speed and responsiveness when managing proposals and contracts.
But buying an off-the-shelf solution and waiting to see what happens to your business isn’t the best way to get started. Effective collaboration is closely tied to the way your enterprise operates. So you'll need to analyse your current organisational structure and business processes to see where collaboration already occurs. Then you can determine the type of collaboration tools that will help to improve your operations.
You'll need to outline the project's scope, and use this to choose the type of collaboration solution you need. That could be an add-on to your existing email system to give you secure instant messaging (IM) or shared calendars, or a complete business portal and application server. You probably won’t want to redesign your whole IT setup, but you will want the new tools to be part of a coherent infrastructure in order to simplify maintenance and management.
The next stage is an implementation plan, so you know who’s going to start working with the collaboration tools first, along with training and joint development projects for your staff. Then you can define your budget for buying and maintaining any dedicated server infrastructure you may need, and for training people to be productive in the new working environment.
It’s important to determine what counts as a success for any major IT project, and the same is true for implementing collaboration tools. There are always key issues like Return On Investment (ROI) and Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), but you also need to think about acceptance. Once you’ve chosen your collaboration tools and set them up, how are you going to encourage employees, suppliers and customers to use them to best advantage? You may need to rethink existing procedures, and it’s vital to make sure that any new business processes are designed to take advantage of the opportunities to collaborate.
One issue you must bear in mind with any collaboration solution is compliance. The regulatory environment facing businesses of all sizes is becoming increasingly rigorous, with increased penalties for non-compliance. Although the US Sarbanes-Oxley Act won’t apply unless you’re trading in the US (or trading directly with US-owned companies), most industries have their own regulations. At the very least you’ll need to consider insurance companies’ demands for increased operational risk management, and the problems of an increasingly litigious climate.
If regulatory compliance is an issue for your business, then it’s important to make sure that any solution you implement can handle document versioning, and that it provides appropriate security controls and audit trails. Clearly, this approach will also help you to manage any collaborative document creation.
Once you have your business justification, and have planned the project in general terms, you’re ready to look at the range of collaboration tools on offer. There are many different collaboration solutions available, catering for all budgets and company sizes -- from simple tools for the smallest team, to application frameworks that turn your existing line-of-business tools into members of your team.