How are online collaboration and communication tools helping small and midsize businesses to enhance their productivity? Business Management asked Inter-Tel’s Chief Technology Officer Jeff Ford to provide his input.
In today’s fast-paced business environment, successful companies are constantly being asked to do more with less. Challenged by tight budgets, increased competition, reduced margins, drastically shortened sales cycles and a dearth of qualified and affordable talent, many managers are looking at new technology as a cost-effective resource to meet their most fundamental needs, such as building revenue, streamlining operations, enhancing customer service and, of course, reducing costs.
For small and midsize businesses, these challenges are even more profound. Not only do these companies oftentimes go head-to-head against larger corporations, but they are increasingly competing with businesses that may be located across the country or around the globe; there are no geographic boundaries in the current landscape. On top of this, although small and midsize companies have the most to gain from leveraging advanced technology, many firms just do not possess the financial and human resources to successfully integrate and manage what they perceive to be a complicated and costly solution.
For a growing number of companies, however, IP-powered collaboration tools are rapidly emerging as the solution of choice in addressing these increasingly common business challenges. Reliable, powerful, secure and efficient, collaboration tools enable employees to communicate more effectively with the people critical to their business success, such as customers, colleagues and suppliers. Through these solutions, workgroups can communicate and collaborate in real-time, regardless of location. Multi-person conferences can be held in airports, remote offices, hotels – even coffee shops – or anywhere else that has an internet connection. Sales presentations, training sessions and strategy meetings can be scheduled and held on demand, greatly enhancing the efficiency and flexibility of the organization.
In addition to delivering effective communication capabilities, collaboration applications allow team members to improve their productivity through document and file sharing, desktop sharing, messaging, chat and a host of other features. When integrated with a company’s core communications system, these applications become even more robust, giving small and medium-scaled businesses a powerful array of tools that enable them to compete cost-effectively against much larger players.
For the vast majority of small and midsize companies, advanced collaboration tools are easy to install, manage and maintain. While the collaboration software itself can reside within a hosted environment, like an applications services provider (ASP), many businesses prefer to keep the application located on their premises, integrated with their communications platform, in order to maximize reliability, security and performance.
There are a number of things businesses should consider when looking at various collaboration solutions. One of the most important elements is the ‘interoperability’ of the application – or in simpler terms, the way a particular collaboration solution performs in different network infrastructures. Optimally, a business wants its employees to be able to collaborate in as many different environments as possible, so it’s important that a vendor’s application performs equally well across different environments. Conferencing, file sharing, messaging tools and the like should be readily available to users who may be on a wired broadband connection in an office, a wireless handheld device – like a PDA – in an airport lounge or hooked up to the internet through a dial-up modem in a hotel room.
The type of network an employee chooses to use is not important. What matters most is the ability of the user to benefit from the same collaborative experience regardless of the infrastructure or device that’s available. It’s an important distinction that many businesses do not fully understand. The technology should fit the customer – not the other way around.
Another consideration that frequently comes up is security. There is a continuing debate over the security of hosted solutions versus premise-based applications. While premise-based solutions do sit behind the company firewall, it would be unfair to categorize the ASP model as insecure. Customers should instead focus on the types of security that vendors incorporate into their products. Are they password protected? Do they offer any degree of encryption? Are ‘meeting-lockout’ and similar features included? A robust collaboration solution will usually include multiple layers of protection that deliver the security businesses demand – without negatively impacting the user experience.
There are a number of good business reasons for small and medium-sized companies to leverage collaboration technology. There is the need for businesses to increase their revenue, shorten their sales cycles and reduce costs. Then there is the evolving competitive landscape, where smaller businesses find themselves competing against larger enterprises that may have substantially more resources. And of course, there are those companies that rely heavily on mobile workers and are challenged to keep these professionals operating efficiently.
Collaboration changes the way businesses perform. It allows disparate team members to hold online meetings and conduct any number of activities, such as sharing schematics and documents or strategizing a new corporate directive. It enables sales presentations to be delivered to and from any location worldwide. And it allows businesses to give their customers greater attention and to more easily recruit remote knowledge workers.
Greater productivity combined with lower operating costs. It’s easy to understand why so many businesses are looking to collaboration technology as the right vehicle to improve their business processes.