Employees who work with others outside their organization look for easy ways to collaborate. The problem is that IT departments configure these intranet tools (like SharePoint and Lotus Notes) for internal collaboration only. Whereas this is perfectly reasonable, it means that sharing files, tracking progress, and even setting up meetings with partners is cumbersome – especially when you have no shared infrastructure between the two organizations.
There are many ways for IT departments to provide a solution to their departments. Options include Extranet SharePoint and Groove – both work, and work together with much of the software that workers have today, and there are others too. But with budgets slashed this year, everyone is looking for way to provide immediate value without spending a lot of money. And at the same time play by some rules that protect company’s intellectual property.
I looked for tools that could help you collaborate with others who are outside your organization, and I specifically looked for three features.
- Software as a service to deliver a solution that requires no setup, no IT department, no hardware.
- Extreme ease of use, with either Ajax (web) or AIR (desktop) user interfaces that rival even the most current versions of enterprise software options.
- Free or monthly subscriptions which allow you to cancel at any time – like when IT is ready to provide a better solution.
I considered that IT may not be in a position to provide you with many new features this year. I blogged about this on ZDNet’s blogs a few months ago - and the feedback I got was excceedingly positive. I also considered that departments need some type of managed and consistent solution. The idea of a total free-for-all, where everyone finds a solution she likes just does not work at a department level. There is a middle ground between chaos and control.
The typical groups that need this kind of collaboration are those who work with partners. And that includes a lot of people. A few examples will help: PR firms work with their clients. Each client has their own IT set up, and the PR firm has to collaborate with their contacts in each of these different environments — and do so in a way that protects information from crossing boundaries. Law firms are similar this way. Real Estate Holding companies have to collaborate with their clients. Airports have to collaborate with their tenants (the airlines), retail vendors (in their shopping mall), government agencies (police, TSA, FAA, etc.), the local government, etc. You get the picture. Many business find that they need the flexibility to talk to many partners, the security to ensure that all the data is safe, and the openness such that no one is imposing to much technology onto their partners.
I then looked at three of the most common extranet collaboration needs, and have collected a couple of solutions that I’ll list here:
- Scheduling a meeting. When we don’t have a shared calendar system, it gets downright frustrating. Check out 30Boxes, Timebridge, Scrybe, MeetWithApproval, and WhenIsGood.
- Tracking activity. This is the basic to-do list and I-did-it list, that we always need to share. But how? Check out KonoLive, Harvest, Producteev, Norada’s Jobblogs, TrackMyPeople, and Smartsheet. And, of course, look at BaseCamp.
- Sharing files. This is the most basic collaboration need. Without it, you are emailing documents back and forth. Check out Onehub, Box.net, and Huddle.net.
Now I do admit that 1. there are many other options our there — so let me know if you use a different tool that you are passionate about. Share with us how well it works for you. 2. some of these tools listed do an awful lot more than the one thing I have listed them for. and 3. there is a huge range of features between these tools. Some support mobile devices, other don’t; some have very clever integrations with other tools that make them very attractive, others are simple and just work. But, that’s OK, this is just a blog post, not a full research report . So I just want to get you thinking and talking about this topic.
In future posts I’ll dive into a few of these tools and others that I think you will find useful, and I’ll share with you how I use some of these tools too.
What this means to you: If IT cannot provide a solution for you, you can’t just wait around. And email is not the ideal solution here. You have options, and some are quite good. In fact, you may find some of these options to be much more attractive than the one IT has been providing you so far. Details are important though. If you are going to be using these tools for your business processes — what are your contingency plans? do you know how your records will be stored? what happens when you want to get back to an IT-sanctioned solution? will the vendor provide you with an export of your data? in what format? at what cost?
If you are looking at solutions for your extranet collaboration needs and would like some help sorting out the details, let me know.