(and when and how to use them)
From small teams to medium size business, collaboration and virtual communication tools would generally include;
2. Hosted messages (messages hosted on a web site, for example a project management tool such as Basecamp or some other customized intranet solution)
3. Activity feeds / private social networks like Yammer
4. Instant messaging (Skype, Google Talk, MSN Messenger, etc)
5. Meetings with screen sharing
6. Visual feedback tools
7. Video conferencing
And some old fashion methods of collaboration (still very much in use):
8. Phone calls
9. Face to face meetings
Each of the these different collaboration strategies has benefits and problems - knowing when to use each tool might seem obvious, but it's important that your business has a clear communication strategy in place and that your team understands how and when to use these technologies most productively.
Using email for all communication within a business can be ineffective for a few reasons:
Problem: People tend to spend a lot of time writing and replying to emails - a “conversation” that could have taken 5 minutes over the phone might take 30 minutes via email. Being able to identify when a conversation could be more effective than an email is extremely important - for instance, when the tone of an email could be misunderstood (or when there is a disagreement that may result in an onslaught of back and forth emails between one or many recipients).
Fix: Schedule a time to talk, and decide how much time you want to spend on the phone call before you dial.
Problem: Email overload is a common problem as it’s very easy to send email, and easy to send to multiple people. You don’t have as much control over which messages are sent to you, and so it can easily get overwhelming.
Fix: Use Gmail. It archives you messages and message history in an intelligent way (so your inbox doesn't pile up up with “reply-alls” and it can prioritize your emails for you.
Problem: With email there is often not a simple way to arrange and reference past communications about a particular topic. Also the messages between two people in a team are not accessible by other team members who might later need this information.
Fix: A hosted messaging solution solves this problem by allowing all team members working on a project to be able to view any message related to the project. Also by organizing the messages into projects, it can be easier to find all relevant information relating to a particular project when you need it.
Hosted messaging & collaboration systems
There are a number collaboration tools on the market (here are the best 43) which handle messages (or notifications) in different ways. While hosted messages solve some of the potential problems of email, they also have some drawbacks as a communication tool (which are generally outweighed communication and discussion archives which any team member can later refer to).
Problem: with most hosted messaging systems like Basecamp other team members can select for anyone to receive the message via email and can contribute significantly to email overload when misused. The tendency is to “copy in” everyone on the team on all communications, which is great for keeping other team members updated but not so good for email productivity.
Fix: There are other ways to use hosted messaging systems so that they do not contribute to email overload. For example with Basecamp you can disallow sending messages via email and can use an alternative method of reading messages such as via an RSS reader. See below.
Problem: An RSS feed solves one problem - email overload - it also creates another; messages may no longer be read if team members do not religiously check their feed.
Fix: implement an internal communication strategy which encourages each team member to check their feed twice a day, once before they begin work, and once before they finish work (and before they organize their priorities for the next day). Any feedback or new messages should only be sent to the people who need to read it.
When to use: for any discussion which is likely to require multiple rounds of feedback, uses or makes reference to other media, or may need to be elevated or shared with other users in the future OR when discussing important issues that you may need a record of OR for whole company or team communication.
Twitter like messaging systems
Often referred to as “private social networks” - Yammer is the leader in this style of collaboration for businesses – What does it do then? “Yammer is free for your whole company, enabling users to communicate, collaborate, and share more easily and efficiently than ever before. It reduces the need for meetings, increases communication across silos, surfaces pockets of expertise and connects remote workers”.
“Posts” in Yammer don't necessarily end up in an inbox, which partially solves the issue of email overload. Replies to comments can be sent as email messages making sure that the person does read the reply. There are also direct messaging options so that Yammer doesn't choke your inbox with notifications.
Problem: Yammer promotes a loose communication style and if you use an existing collaboration tool, it may mean more time wasted replicating information in different places or having to jump between conversations.
Fix: If a private social network works as a communication tool for your business, commit to using it, and possibly use another system to manage task assignment.
Problem: like using and RSS feed instead of email notifications with a collaboration tool, recipients may read a message when they want to or if they get around to it. There is no guarantee that your message will be read.
Fix: Either use email, or implement a policy which means that you staff will check their feed and reply to messages at particular intervals.
Problem: Generally, Yammer is suitable only to small number of businesses – As Todd Zeigler puts it – “I already have a million ways to communicate with my colleagues already”. Your business may not need an enterprise social network.
Fix: only consider using an internal social network if real time communication is crucial to some aspect of your business.
Instant messaging can be a great tool, it allows you get in touch with anyone who's online in any part of the world, and can save time when an immediate solution to a problem is required (from one or many people).
Problem: The advantage and also the disadvantage of text based messaging is that you receive it instantly on the desktop. The benefit is that you can contact other team members whenever you need them. The disadvantage is that at any time team members can interrupt each other, which can be a productivity problem.
Fix: only use IM when there's an important issue that needs replying to straight away (or for instance, when you think you may not receive a reply to an important email issue).
Problem: IM can be time consuming when you involve multiple team members
Fix: have a voice meeting instead. Note: this may not always be the best option if members of your team speak English as 2nd language. It can be an advantage to a text only conversation because there's a good record of each discussion that people can refer back to.
This type of collaboration is fantastic when trying to explain something on your screen and is most useful for when discussing ideas, designs or trying to explain how to do something (for instance, with technical support). These software solutions generally require each user to install a piece of software on their own computer to participate in screen sharing.
One of the best solutions we've found is Sococo's Team Space. This solution provides a spatial user interface where you can participate not only in screen sharing, but in virtual office meetings. Some other examples of this technology are: Yuuguu, Team Viewer, Dimdim,Show My PC, Mikogo, GoToMeeting, Yugma and WebEx.
When to use: For scheduled discussions where one or many people need to explain anything visual. Sococo is a great option because it can replace IM and prevent distractions – each user can visually see when someone is busy and / or drop in and listen to existing meetings or presentations without interrupting workflow. Take a product tour here: https://www.sococo.com/features.php
Video conferencing allows multiple remote users with each other as if they were in the same room (using video and voice integration).
When to use: When a more personal touch is needed (or for high level discussions), or to save a bucket on travel.
There are various options for video conferencing - low cost options include Skype – Alternatively, hire a video conferencing room or try other software solutions like Nefsis, or Oovoo (which allows up to 6-way video calls for $39.95 a month).
Visual feedback tools
Jing Project is a great example of this type of collaboration software which can be used to take screenshots of your screen and then provide text notes describing parts of the screenshot (This is fantastic for providing feedback to designers for example).
You can also create video 'screen casts' to explain something that is happening on your screen that may be difficult to explain using screen sharing technologies.
When to use: for feedback with designers, creating training resources, recording bugs, or for capturing anything on screen for people who may be in different timezones and are unable to use other screen sharing technologies.
How to improve your communication productivity
A first step is to analyze how much time team members spend on different types of communication. Make a list of the different tools used for collaboration in your business and record how long team members spend using each tool. Time Doctor and Rescue Time are two software tools you can use to get this data.
After you identify how long team members are spending with each tool then the next step is to eliminate any non work related time such as personal use of email and Skype at work. Clear policies and monitoring will help to keep team members focused on using tools for business use only (during business hours). For example you can require that all team members have a Skype account for work use only and not to add any personal contacts to this account.
Other ways to improving productivity with online collaboration tools:
1. Require team members to keep emails short and to the point. More than 5 sentences is too many.
2. Do not copy team members on email communication unless essential. If it is information that they might require later, post it in a hosted email system where they have access, or use a Twitter like system.
3. After about 3 back and forth text based messages it’s time for a phone call. Email and text based communication has it’s limits and when things get complex you need a phone call or face to face meeting (if possible).
4. Anything emotional should be dealt with ideally face to face, but as a second option via a phone call (or Skype or video conference). Emailing back and forth on emotional issues can quickly lead to raised tempers and hurt feelings.
5. Try to minimize the channels of communication within your business. Too may channels can lead to confusion and productivity issues, where is the information stored? How do I get in touch with this person?
6. Consider black out periods for certain types of communication, for example ban instant messaging in the afternoon at work.
7. Consider short weekly phone or in person meetings to try and replace multiple back and forth emails and other communication during the week. The way to accomplish this is to schedule meetings of 2-3 people maximum, with a set time period (for example 30 minutes). Write down during the week everything that you are thinking to email the person about and cover it in the meeting. This will only work for certain types of businesses but it can save a lot of time.
8. Also cut out all unnecessary meetings and try to eliminate meetings of more than 3 people.
9. Reserve instant messaging for urgent issues that can be dealt with quickly via text. Anything more complex should be done via a phone call, and issues that are not urgent should go to either email or a hosted email system. This is to prevent team members from interrupting each other during the day.
10. Consider using a hosted email system to try and replace email where possible. Configure notifications options to remove distracting and less important messages or use RSS feeds and check them at set intervals.