Software // Productivity/Collaboration Apps
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2/25/2014
09:15 AM
David F Carr
David F Carr
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Social Collaboration, Small Business Style

Choose social collaboration tools based on your company's size and ambitions -- and the sensitivity of the business you will discuss.

10 Worst Social Media Meltdowns Of 2013
10 Worst Social Media Meltdowns Of 2013
(Click image for larger view.)

In preparing for a talk at my local library about my book, Social Collaboration for Dummies, I've been putting more thought into ways that small businesses can make the best use of social collaboration tools. Since I expect the crowd to be made up mostly of people from small companies, my presentation will have to be different from when I spoke to a professional organization for bankers a few weeks ago, and certainly different from addressing a crowd of social business enthusiasts.

The term enterprise social networking was coined to describe big businesses that use social tools within a private network. My editors and I decided to use "social collaboration" in the title of the book partly to appeal more broadly to businesses, both large and small, that can use social tools.

Organizing small business tasks is one of Podio's strengths.
Organizing small business tasks is one of Podio's strengths.

Businesses of different sizes use social collaboration tools differently. For example, I often talk about the way Socialcast is used at SAS Institute to connect R&D workers in different parts of the company, often in different parts of the world, who have similar interests or are trying to solve similar technical problems. I've heard similar stories out of big industrial companies such as 3M. This is the business world's social networking equivalent of Facebook reuniting old high school friends, or public social network discussions bringing together far-flung groups of people who all care deeply about a specific topic.

If a business is small enough that all the employees know each other anyway, it doesn't need a social network to introduce them to each other, of course. But that's not the only thing social collaboration tools do -- and it's not necessarily the most important thing people do with them, even in large organizations. I admit I would have a hard time arguing that a really small, two- or three-person business needs a social collaboration tool. But a five- or ten-person business might benefit from social collaboration, particularly if the firm includes employees or contractors who work remotely or from home.

Social networking and collaboration are really two different things, although they can be complementary.

Social networking is about making connections and getting to know people better. Even in a small organization, you can learn things you didn't know about your co-workers through a private social network, just as you learn things you didn't know about your friends through Facebook.

Collaboration, by definition, is about getting work done together. The sort of knowledge work and project planning tasks you can accomplish in an online environment usually get done in relatively small teams. Typically, a big company provides teams with an online workspace segmented off from the rest of the collaboration network where they can get something accomplished. A project leader might use the social network to locate talent for the team and to periodically report the results of its work, but the rest of the company doesn't need to see its work in progress.

In a business of, say, fewer than 25 employees, there might be less of a need for that kind of compartmentalization. In other words, for the most important projects, the company is the team -- all hands on deck. That means there will be more information that everyone needs to know, and collaboration networks are great for sharing information that everyone needs to know (or easily find). The founders or partners might still want to carve out a private workgroup where they can discuss things such as hiring and firing decisions.

When speaking to small-business people, I still have to start by explaining that "social" means more than Facebook and Twitter. Social collaboration is a little more mainstream than it used to be, as software you can buy as a cloud service from Microsoft, due to its acquisition of Yammer. But most social software for business brands are still far from household names.

Actually, it is possible that Facebook could be the social collaboration solution for some small businesses and nonprofits.

Facebook groups offer the potential for collaboration and even some security options: open, closed, or secret. If you establish a Facebook group as secret, no one is supposed to be able to find out that it even exists unless you invite them, and all content contained in the group is supposed to be private. Just remember that Facebook has been known to redefine what public and private means on its network, often suddenly and unpredictably.

The way I usually put it is that a Facebook group could be fine for organizing a Christmas party but not a product launch. On the other hand, if your business

David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and ... View Full Bio

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Kristin Burnham
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Kristin Burnham,
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2/25/2014 | 9:44:38 PM
Great advice
Great column with plenty of practical advice. Small businesses need to know that they have good options when it comes to good collaboration tools (and, as you mention, they need to know how these tools can help them). I second your mention of Yammer -- I've used it in the past and it's a great option for businesses on a budget.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
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2/25/2014 | 10:47:22 PM
Re: Great advice
I've been impressed by how much you can do with the free version of Yammer. The designers were generous in what they included for no money. I understand the reasons why an enterprise would want to have a contractual arrangement and more control in general. But for a startup, I'd have to say stretch the free version as far as you can take it.
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