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.

consists of a handful of people who work from home, making baskets to sell at the local farmers market, and you're all big Facebook users, maybe a closed or secret Facebook group could be just the thing for you to coordinate your work using a tool that is more fun and friendlier than email.


Google+, plus Google Apps.

Google+ is another option. Because I maintain a domain for my work outside of InformationWeek and pay for a Google Apps account, Google automatically assigns me a circle that I can use to share posts only with other people who have a email address. Take that capability, plus the document-collaboration features in Google Drive and video collaboration over Hangouts, and you've got a pretty nice suite of collaboration software.

The problem with trying to do private collaboration on a public social network is that what's private can too easily become public. It's too easy for an employee to intend to post to a private group or circle, but mistakenly post to a public one. This was dramatized by one of the most famous tech industry rants. In 2011, Google engineer Steve Yegge posted a long screed on what he saw as the inadequacies of the company's strategy, in social software among other things. But instead of posting this to the company's internal social network, which Google+ was modeled on, he somehow posted it to Google+, the public network, in a major public relations snafu.

I recently embarrassed myself by posting information in a Facebook group that wasn't quite as private as I thought it was.


This Facebook group was less private than I thought.

Though the group for my Toastmasters club is labeled open, meaning anyone can view it and ask to join, membership does have to be approved, and usually only members get notifications about activity within the group. The other day, I did a publicity photo shoot trying to capitalize on the fact that the club meets at an unusual location, the skating rink where the Florida Panthers practice. Although we meet in a non-refrigerated room upstairs, I thought it would be fun to push the lectern out on the ice and get some photos of one of our officers standing behind it, banging the gavel. The operators of the facility even arranged to have the Zamboni drive by in the background.

I thought I was collaborating privately when I uploaded an album of photos to the club's Facebook group and asked members to "like" or comment on the ones they thought were the best, so we could choose which ones to send to the local newspapers. I then proceeded to like and comment on my favorites.

When my wife asked me why I was spamming Facebook with all these pictures, I was puzzled because she is not a member of the Toastmasters Facebook group and would not normally see posts made to that group. But for whatever reason, Facebook treats photos differently. I thought I knew the ground rules better than I really did.

It's important that the mental picture users have of how collaboration software works -- particularly its privacy and security -- matches how it actually works. In this case, I had used a consumer service not known for being great at preserving privacy, so I had no one to blame but myself. Fortunately, the consequences of these super-secret photos going public prematurely were limited to me annoying my wife, and that's nothing new.

Private social networking products and services minimize the risks of accidental disclosure, although buyers still have to evaluate the level of security offered and match it to their needs.

In general, the choice of appropriate tools depends a lot on the scale and ambitions of the organization and the sensitivity of the business discussed. I think of Yammer, Podio, and Redbooth (formerly Teambox) as some of the most appropriate choices for a small business, as opposed to IBM Connections or Jive Software, the dominant big enterprise choices. (I'm leaving dozens of other choices off the list, but there is a longer discussion of the options in my book.)

For a small business with ambitions to get a lot bigger, I would put Jive back in the running, based on its cloud service. Unlike some of the other options, there's no version of Jive that you can use indefinitely as a free service, but there is a 30-day trial you can use to scope it out. IBM also offers a cloud option, IBM SmartCloud Connections. Jive and IBM Connections both are sophisticated, complex social collaboration environments, so the challenge is to judge whether their longer feature lists include things your organization is going to want or need in the long run. Otherwise, you might be better off with a more streamlined social collaboration tool like Yammer, which can also scale for use in large businesses.

Podio, now owned by Citrix and offered alongside products such as GoToMeeting, is another cloud-based social software product appropriate for small businesses. Podio has some strong features for social task management and nifty tools for creating "apps," which Podio calls Web-based applications for recording and searching information or organizing activities. Podio offers a library of shared apps, including project management and customer relationship management tools, created by its staff or enthusiastic users. Just the ticket for a small business that's making things up as it goes along.

Podio does have some enterprise customers. I spoke with a support operations manager at CCH, a tax and accounting software division of Wolters Kluwer, who found it to be a perfect tool for adding structure to informal task-coordination activities previously accomplished through email.

On the other hand, I recently spoke with Citrix employees who said that when the company tried to establish Podio as its internal collaboration software standard, it found Podio a mismatch. Employees would get too many irrelevant alerts about activities happening in other parts of the company, in other parts of the world. Because IBM Connections is derived from social tools used internally at IBM, a huge company, it provides better tools for filtering the stream of activities from across the whole organization down to what's relevant to the specific employee. IBM and Jive also offer richer social profiles and search capabilities for finding people based on their expertise and other qualities. Podio has a social-style user interface, but its actual social networking capabilities are relatively anemic in that respect.

As the designers of Podio get more experience serving Citrix and other large enterprises, presumably it will get better at meeting their needs.

For a small business, the big question is whether you need what a big business needs. Maybe you and your coworkers should kick around a few ideas about that on Facebook. If anyone else happens to see your discussion, they can chime in, too.

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