Network Collaboration Best Practices

How to get the most collaboration value on your SMB network: Tips and advice.

Every business needs better collaboration tools. Even a sole practitioner must collaborate with customers, suppliers, or prospects.

There is no one "right" way to collaborate. Each company collaborates in their own unique way, although those ways tend to be outmoded, top down, inefficient, and confusing. Opportunities for miscommunication abound between telephones, voice mail, e-mail, Instant Messaging, blogs, Web conferencing, and cell phone text messaging. Coordinating so many options takes time, effort, planning, and commitment from management.

E-mail

E-mail, the most common collaboration tool, balances great benefits (nearly instant communications) with great problems (spam and finding information hidden within e-mails). The killer app for the Internet (in my opinion), e-mail must "kick it up a notch" to remain valuable over the next two years. The floods of spam and viruses threatened for years to ruin e-mail, but I think we now have the tools to turn that tide. Now we must turn away the floods of lawyers and compliance regulations constantly picking through e-mail.

I suggest small companies with limited technical resources rely on hosted e-mail services rather than hosting their own e-mail onsite. The struggle to maintain a secure e-mail server on the Internet takes more time than small companies realize. Not to undertake that struggle, and just hope your e-mail server is safe because you're a small company, leads to disaster.

Every Internet Service Provider includes e-mail support, and there are commercial services available (for extra dollars per month per user, of course). A good sequence as companies grow is to:

             Let their ISP host all their e-mail.

             Add an in-house e-mail server that downloads from and uploads mail to the ISP.

             Host their own e-mail server but let a third party help support it.

             Host their own e-mail server without outside help.

Notice the progression? As you grow and add more technical expertise, you take more and more control of your own e-mail server. The same progression works with Web servers as well.

Appliances for spam protection can be placed at your service provider or your own network. Stopping spam before it clogs your server has multiple advantages. I discussed one of the leading companies in this market in Barracuda Boxes Spam .

As you get your own e-mail server, take the time to look beyond Microsoft Exchange. I described one option here: New E-mail Server Option but there are many other companies in this market, believe it or not. Check with your preferred reseller or your service provider for options. Just because Microsoft includes Exchange in their Small Business Server package doesn't mean it's appropriate for small businesses.

Do a lot of e -commerce? Then you get lots of customer e-mail (both potential and current customers). A specialty company with strong ties to eBay talked with me, and my comment was that HostedSupport Saves Time, Money .

None of these services fix a serious problem for most people: they treat their e-mail folders like databases, keeping critical information in the least reliable, and least searchable, application on their computer. I hope some serious improvements appear soon so we can start Shaking Data Loose From E-mail soon.

One way to make e-mail more reliable and more secure? Use better e-mail client software. I reported on a variety of them in Getting Out From Under Outlook, Part 1 and Part 2 . For security reasons alone, dump Microsoft Outlook unless you love fighting viruses and rebuilding your e-mail database after PST file crashes.

Too many people use their e-mail client to store hundreds or thousands (or more) old e-mail messages. This is not a good idea, because e-mail clients make lousy databases. You can't search effectively, you can't archive easily, and overloaded e-mail clients can scramble their one huge file holding all your e-mail, effectively killing your entire e-mail history.

Shaking Data Loose From E-mail , a topic I research regularly, has few good answers to this point. A few third parties now make products to pull e-mail messages out of Microsoft Outlook and store them in a decent database structure. Failing that, you can always export individual e-mails you want to save to a folder structure, then use a desktop searching tool to retrieve messages later. Keep watching this space, because I'm determined to find a good way to handle e-mail retention intelligently.

Instant Messaging

I recommend a two-pronged approach to the IM dilemma: use as many public programs like AIM and MSN and Yahoo Messenger as you want to communicate with customers, but use a private IM application to communicate between employees. Public IM tools aren't secure and are hard to archive, but necessary when customers want quick answers. Private IM tools used internally keep messages away from the public, and usually offer logging and archiving features.

The one public IM tool I feel comfortable recommending is the Skype IM included within the Skype Internet Telephone client. This IM client encrypts all messages from the sending to receiving computer, so your information never crosses in the Internet in plain text mode (as all the other public IM products do). Skype offers logging, including when you're in an IM conference with up to 50 attendees. Since about 60 million members of the public have Skype running on their systems, you should support this as part of your public-facing IM capabilities.

In the column IM Tricks Keep Coming , I discuss using Skype internally as a way to send passwords with confidence, because of the encryption. Other private IM tools are mentioned as well.

Conferencing

What do you think of first when you hear the word conferencing? If you think dozens of IM users on the same meeting, as mentioned previously talking about the Skype IM client, you have an easy answer but could be considered a bit odd for thinking of IM conferencing first. Most people think of teleconferencing first.

If you are a Skype user, a new company offers a Skype Conference Upgrade suitable for up to 500 users on the same voice call. While third-party conference services abound, they cost far more than Skype's rate of two cents per minute to connect to the traditional telephone network. That's the rate (2 cents per minute) charged by Vapps , Inc., and their HighSpeedConferencing.com product layered on top of Skype.

Videoconferencing tools, far too expensive for small and medium companies, may actually be affordable before long. Skype again leads the way, although Microsoft's LiveMeeting server tools will soon dominate among medium sized companies the US.

GroupWare

Few companies communicate clearly and consistently. Part of this is human nature, but a bigger part is the lack of easy tools for such collaboration.

I wrote about one small company spread around the world using HyperOffice to get their work done in SMB Global Collaboration . For several months, I've been testing HyperOffice and will report on my findings soon.

A similar report in the medical field, Sixteen Doctors and a Shared Workspace (http://www.networkworld.com/newsletters/sbt/2005/0704networker3.html) highlighted Intranets.com as the groupware provider. Now owned by the WebEx people, Intranets.com does offer some excellent tools, and takes a little different slant than HyperOffice .

Groove made big news, but garnered small market share. Microsoft gobbled Groove a couple of years ago, and will put many Groove features into their new operating systems like Vista. You can get a sense of why Microsoft bought Groove in Groove for Small Businesses ?

Peer-to-peer network operating system MioNet offers a range of groupware features as well as folder synchronization. One of their features is remote desktop control, which many consider a key feature in a collaboration toolkit. Check it out in MioNet - A New Peer-To-Peer Network Option .

Collaboration tools are one thing, but most groups focus on the end result, a document. If you use Microsoft Word (and nine of ten of you do), check out A New Approach to Collaboration and see ways to make sure the Word DOC you have on your computer is the right Word DOC.

Finally, small companies often become their own worst enemies when the subject of sharing information comes up. Some people like to be the ones in the know, and therefore control. I wrote about this based on my own family business history (my father's company), and Finding Information Black Holes in Every Business . Once you realize there's a problem, there are easy ways to fix that problem. Well, easy technical ways when you start Rethinking Internal Information Portals . Changing people's behavior takes much more time and trouble than building a groupware application. But at least with a groupware process in place, you have a chance to share information.

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