Are You Ready to Move Beyond Email? Warning Signs and Key Considerations

(Part 2 of a 3 part blog series “Are You Ready to Move Beyond Email?” which focuses on Online Collaboration Suites for SMBs. Click here for Part 1, which provides an overview of the online collaboration suite area.)

Effective collaboration can make the difference between business success and failure. While point collaboration solutions can help us bring order to the chaos, using and managing a hodge-podge of disconnected solutions can also result in a tangled mess that adds to the disorder instead of reducing it.

In the first part of this blog series, Are You Ready to Move Beyond Email? Assessing SMB Online Collaboration Suites, I discussed how today’s online collaboration suites give SMBs powerful and affordable options to streamline collaboration, boost productivity, save time, and cut down on mistakes and errors caused by poor collaboration. By integrating different pieces of the puzzle into a unified solution, these suites make it easier not only to find, share, manage, and use information but also to locate and connect with the right people at the right time.

But how can you tell if your company has outgrown point collaboration solutions, and would benefit from a more integrated approach? In this post, I’ll explore the warning signs that your business may be headed towards collaboration chaos, and discuss some key factors that will help to increase the odds of successfully selecting and implementing a collaboration suite in your company.

Does Your Business Need a Collaboration Makeover?

Sometimes, pulling together a few point solutions such as email, instant messaging, contact management, and a shared file space is all a business needs to stay on track. However, as businesses grow, they have more employees. They need to juggle more complex or varied projects, and have more customers and partners they need to work with. At a certain point, it becomes difficult and very manually intensive to keep everyone on track and on the same page, and working effectively to meet common goals. Some of the warning signs that your business needs to improve and streamline collaboration include:

  • Bottlenecks in finding information or resources needed to get a job done.
  • Email overload.
  • Version control issues—such as trying to figure out which document is the most recent one, or accidentally sending out the wrong version to a client.
  • Mistakes made because people are using incorrect or outdated information.
  • Inability to access and/or agree on what the “right” information is.
  • An overload of customer service calls.
  • Too much telephone tag—wasted time on missed phone calls, searching for missing phone numbers and locating people.
  • Inability to easily track, monitor and engage in relevant social media conversations.
  • Too many logons and passwords to keep track of for too many different collaboration tools, and time wasted because those tools don’t integrate or “talk to” each other.

These problems can cause large losses in time and productivity. More importantly, when mistakes are made, information is missing, or the right person isn’t in the loop, these collaboration issues can also result in a loss of credibility with clients, partners, and suppliers.

Key Considerations for a Successful Collaboration Makeover

As discussed in Part 1 of this series, and in detail in our report, Moving Beyond Email: The Era of SMB Online Collaboration Suites, there are many great online collaboration suites available to help SMBs solve and/or avoid these problems. But effective collaboration requires much more than a new software solution. Here are some steps you can take to increase the odds of successfully selecting and implementing a collaboration suite in your company:

  • Examine collaboration gaps, roadblocks and inefficiencies that exist in your company today, and the problems they are causing. Ask users and decision makers identify their top pain points and requirements early in the process. This assessment will help you to narrow the field and evaluate those vendors with capabilities that align most closely to your needs.
  • Take steps to reduce inertia. Inertia is a powerful force, and it can be tough to get people to switch gears and leave the point solutions they know—even if they are cumbersome and ineffective. Make it easy for users to see how a more integrated approach will not only help the business, but also help each individual to save time, achieve goals, save time, and reduce frustration. Get company influencers and thought leaders on board to help motivate others and smooth the process, and engage a broad cross-section of users in discussions, trials, pilots and feedback along the way.
  • Talk to people at companies that have similar collaboration goals and needs. Find out what’s worked for them, what hasn’t, and what you can learn and apply in your company.
  • Think about any special needs—such as integrating parts of a  collaboration suite with other business processes. Consult with internal IT staff (if available) and/or outside consultants or system integrators that can help advise them.
  • Keep in mind that a key benefit of an integrated collaboration suite is that it lets you take an incremental approach. Although integrated collaboration suites offer many capabilities, companies don’t need to—and shouldn’t try to—start using everything at once. Start by using the capabilities that address the biggest collaboration pain points, and build from there to incorporate new functionality as you need it and are ready to absorb it.

In the third and final post of this series, I’ll take a closer look at some of the key ways that online collaboration suite vendors are striving to add value and differentiate in the market, including social networking, document management and user interface.

In the meantime, if you are part of an SMB company that is actively considering whether to deploy an online collaboration suite, click on this link and I’ll send you a copy of the full study.

Are You Ready to Move Beyond Email? Assessing Online Collaboration Suites for SMBs

(Part 1 of a 3 part blog series “Are You Ready to Move Beyond Email?” which focuses on Online Collaboration Suites for SMBs Click here for Part 2,which provides tips for helping you determine if it’s time to make the move.)

Collaboration is probably the only activity that everyone in every company engages in every day. Whether a CEO or new hire, an accountant or a construction worker, everyone needs to share and manage information, ideas, resources, and connections to get their jobs done.

Until recently, most small and medium businesses (SMBs) could get along just fine by pulling together a few point solutions such as email, calendars, document sharing, and the good old telephone. But as the number of mobile and remote workers soar, requirements to collaborate with external partners, customers and suppliers intensify, and the information overload continues to mount you are not alone if you’re finding that tools are no longer up to the job. In fact, you are likely to be feeling that this hodge-podge of point solutions is leading to miscommunication and mistakes, which in turn, results in lost productivity and a loss of credibility with clients, partners and suppliers.

First, the good news if this is your situation: there are more integrated collaboration suites available than ever before. In addition, many of these are geared to SMB requirements, and offered in an online software-as-a-service (SaaS) model—which takes cost, complexity and risk out of deploying and using these solutions. The bad news is that there are so many of these, it can be extremely difficult to figure out which solution will be the best fit for your needs.

Assessing Online Collaboration Suites for SMBs

Because effective collaboration is so essential for any organization, and so many SMBs are searching for more integrated and streamlined collaboration tools, the SMB Group recently conducted in-depth study, Moving Beyond Email: The Era of SMB Online Collaboration Suites, to compare eight online collaboration suite vendors, including Google Apps for Business, HyperOffice, IBM LotusLive, Microsoft BPOS, OnePlace, Salesforce Chatter, VMWare Zimbra, and Zoho Business. Each of these vendors puts its own spin on the almost universally accepted benefits of the SaaS model including low up-front costs, anywhere, anytime, access, rapid deployment, ease-of-use, and more responsive support.

However, each also tunes its marketing, product, packaging, sales and service formulas differently to play on its own strengths and varying market requirements. Beyond the basics, we also see vendors distinguishing themselves by adding more value in four key areas: social networking, document management, web conferencing and user interface. For instance:

  • Google takes advantage of its ubiquitous web presence and market might to disrupt traditional email and collaboration paradigms with a refreshed look, feel and navigation–such as threaded emails. The vendor offers web-based files that can be shared and simultaneously edited by co-workers
  • HyperOffice focuses exclusively on SMB requirements. Integration enables users to continue to use legacy email, but in more convenient and powerful ways. It offers strong document management functionality, and features Hyperslide, which lets users create a virtual drive on their PC or Mac so they can manage, view and work on files stored on the web in HyperOffice as easily desktop files.
  • IBM LotusLive integrates strong social media capabilities with traditional document management and collaboration tools. Users can invite “guests” that don’t have a LotusLive account to participate in specific activities and projects, making the suite particularly well-suited to companies that frequently have projects that include external consultants and contractors as team members.
  • Microsoft BPOS emphasizes the benefits of the familiar Outlook and Windows look and feel in an online offering, and includes web conferencing as part of the standard service.
  • Salesforce Chatter features a social media orientation with a Facebook-like interface, and tight integration with Salesforce CRM so that application updates are automatically posted into feeds.

The SMB Readiness Grid (Figure 1) indicates our ranking of each vendor’s positioning in the SMB market, which we calculated from detailed vendor rating criteria and ratings that are included in the report. The sphere’s position on the X-axis represents the scope of solution functionality and breadth of products; while it’s position on the Y-axis represents our view of the “sweet spot” customer size segment for the solution.

SMB Readiness Grid for Online Collaboration Suites

Figure 1: SMB Readiness Grid for SMB Online Collaboration Suites

As indicated on the chart, today’s online collaboration suites provide SMBs with many powerful and affordable options to choose from. But, while all of the online collaboration suites we examined offer customers the benefits of a more streamlined and integrated collaboration approach, each vendor has a different view on what core functionality needs to be included in its offering, and in which areas they should invest to create additional value for SMB customers.

This means that  SMBs need to assess their own internal requirements and objectives first—and then explore the options that most closely fit their needs.

In my next post on this topic, I’ll discuss some of the warning signs that indicate a business has outgrown point collaboration solutions, and discuss the key considerations that SMBs should be thinking about as they go through this process.

In the meantime, if you are part of an SMB company that is actively considering whether to deploy an online collaboration suite, click on this link and I’ll send you a complementary copy of the study.

What is Mobile Commerce, and Why Should You Care?

(Originally published September 13, 2010 in Small Business Computing)

What is Mobile Commerce?

Mobile commerce (also known as mobile ecommerce, m-commerce and other variations) consists of two primary components. The first is the ability to use a wireless phone or other mobile device to conduct financial transactions and exchange payments over the Internet. The second is the ability to deliver information that can facilitate a transaction — from making it easy for your business to be “found” via a mobile Web browser to creating mobile marketing campaigns such as text promotions and loyalty programs.

Why Should You Care?

Just as the Internet and ecommerce revolutionized the way we promote, market, shop for and buy goods and services, wireless devices and mobile commerce are poised to create another revolution in the world of commerce.

As the use of Internet-enabled wireless devices skyrockets, people want to use these devices to do more things. App stores and hundreds of thousands of applications have sprung up to accommodate demand for applications, games and other services. But just as we saw in the early days of ecommerce, privacy, security, usability and interoperability issues have slowed the pace of mobile commerce adoption in the early going — among both sellers and buyers.

However, with the Internet in our pocket or purse, it’s only a matter of time before mobile commerce really takes off. Mobile devices go where we go, and track where we are. The technology makes it easy to find a nearby pizza place and order a pizza, order theater tickets from your car, or check out price comparisons and reviews from a store.

Mobile applications and devices are getting more personal too: based on past history, they can anticipate our needs and promote goods and services to fulfill them. Still not convinced? Think about this: Amazon recently announced that “in the last twelve 12 months, customers around the world have ordered more than $1 billion of products from Amazon using a mobile device.”

Big retailers and companies are investing to make mobile commerce easier, more convenient and more secure. As they do, consumers will become more comfortable with making purchases over their BlackBerrys, iPhones, Androids, iPads and mobile devices we have yet to imagine.

If you sell your vegetables at farmer markets, or your home-made jewelry at craft fairs, or if you deliver pizzas to apartments or dorm rooms, its easy to see how being able to take credit card transactions on your mobile device could help you boost sales and repeat business. You don’t need to limit your sales to people who can pay by cash or check.

Customers that don’t have a checkbook can still buy from you, and they’re not limited by the amount of cash in their pockets. Furthermore, you can easily capture their contact information and follow up with other promotions. Meanwhile, if you run a hair salon, you could use mobile marketing to let customers know when you have openings or send them appointment reminders.

What to Consider

We are still early on in the mobile commerce era. But, as large retailers embrace mobile commerce, small retailers will need to gear up to provide convenient and secure mobile payment and commerce options. Now is a great time to develop a mobile commerce strategy to help differentiate your business. Some key areas to consider include

1. Do you need a mobile Web site? While it may be tempting to try to optimize your existing website for mobile devices, this often results in a clunky and hard-to-navigate site on a small screen. Consider building a separate, streamlined site geared to mobile users. Register it as a mobile site with search engines so it shows up in mobile searches, and provide a link to your mobile site from your main website. Check out services such as Mobify, which helps create mobile-friendly websites.

2. How can you best promote your business to mobile users? You can, for instance, send text messages to customers about specials and discounts. Or a group of retailers on Main Street could team up to offer joint loyalty programs — buy something at one store, get 20  percent off at the next — to help compete more effectively with one-stop big box stores.  SMS text messaging services such as Fanminder, Ez Texting and Ruxter, which helps businesses create a mobile website, and share messages with customers and members.

3. Don’t be a pest. You want to use mobile commerce for good, not evil, so make sure that customers can decide and opt-in if they want to get your promotions via their cell phones–or not.

4. Set up your business for mobile commerce payments. More vendors are starting to offer mobile commerce solutions geared to small and medium business requirements and budgets. These solutions let you take payments on your mobile device, and also send an email or text invoice to the customer. Wireless carriers, credit card companies and software companies are all introducing mobile commerce solutions; start by assessing solutions from vendors you already use and trust.

5. Think about integration. Integrating mobile commerce transactions with your accounting and contact management solutions can help save time and increase efficiency. Good news–If you are one of the millions of small businesses using Intuit or Sage accounting solutions — Intuit GoPayments and Sage Exchange provide integration with their respective accounting and financial solutions.

6. Be sure that it’s secure. Fraudulent activities can be an issue with mobile commerce, and compliance requirements and fines for fraudulent activities — never mind the damage to business credibility — are serious. Businesses considering mobile commerce need to verify that the mobile commerce payments vendor is PA-DSS compliant, which means that its solution has met global security standards created by the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council to prevent payment applications from storing prohibited secure data, such as magnetic stripe, PIN or CVV2 numbers.

Remember, it took some time for businesses to develop ecommerce sites and for customers to feel comfortable using their credit cards on the Web. Today, mobile commerce is in its infancy, but given the explosion of Internet-enabled mobile devices coupled with consumers’ desire for speed and convenience, mobile commerce is destined to be the next big game-changer.

WITI Summit: Shining the Spotlight on Women in Technology

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to attend my first WITI Women and Technology Summit (#witisummit), held this year in San Jose—and was truly impressed and inspired by this conference. If you’re not familiar with WITI (Women In Technology International), the organization was launched 21 years ago—when the technology industry was very different and much more of a male-dominated field than it is today. Carolyn Leighton founded WITI to bring talented, capable women in technology together, and provide a showcase for their contributions to the field.

I was excited to join fellow panelists Vanessa Alvarez, Frost  & Sullivan and James Watters from VMWare, along with our moderator, Ray Wang, Altimeter Group, for the Applied Cloud panel. The event schedule was jam-packed with great sessions on social media, green IT and emerging markets and cloud computing, along with business and professional development sessions, and plenty of time for networking. With many parallel sessions and breakouts, I could only attend a handful, but found them extremely valuable.

One thing really stood out for me at this event is that while most business and professional awards ceremonies tend to be dull and boring, WITI’s 15th Annual Hall of Fame Awards was anything but. This year’s event honored 5 women technology luminaries for their outstanding contributions. Dr. Ruth Westheimer, aka Dr. Ruth—who needs no introduction—received one of the awards.  At 82 years old, Dr. Ruth still has the magic touch (no pun intended!) when it comes to publicly speaking about sexual and reproductive topics in an engaging and enlightening way. The other women honored included:

  • Sandy Carter, VP of IBM Software Group Business Partners, and a social media expert, author and channels dynamo.
  • Dr. Ruth David, currently President and CEO of Analytic Services, Inc., and former Deputy Director for Science and Technology at the CIA, and a pioneer in providing analysis to help strengthen national security.
  • Dr. Adele Goldberg, Founding Chairman, ParcPlace Systems, Inc., and co-inventor of personal computing and pervasive networking at Xerox PARC back in the 1970s!
  • Dr. Susie Wee, CTO, Client Cloud Services at HP, and prolific developer of imaging, digital television and mobile video technologies, as well as MIT’s “Researchers in Residence” program for MIT grad students.

Clearly, none of these women have let others define their roles or set boundaries on what they can accomplish. But, in addition to their extraordinary contributions and credentials, each of these women share several other characteristics that really set them apart as leaders—and make them role models for us all, women and men.

  • Remarkably committed and authentic team players. They put their egos aside to engage and energize their teams. Sandy Carter, for example, founded the IBM Super Women’s Group, which now has something like 12,000 members at IBM. Several members were at the event, and their admiration and appreciation for Sandy was real and evident.
  • Great listeners. They are genuinely interested in who other people are, and the different perspectives they bring to the table. A short video clip about Dr. Susie Wee and her HP team, for instance, underscored her ability to actively listen and absorb input from a diverse spectrum of talented people to help shape and refine project goals—and end up with better outcomes.
  • Multi-dimensional. Their technology accomplishments are stellar, but its clear that they define themselves much more broadly. The stories they told focused not only on their passion for technology, but also underscored how their roles as daughters, mothers, wives and grandmothers; hockey players and authors; mentors, educators and philanthropists are just as important to their sense of who they are in the world.

It was definitely a different, fun and energizing experience to attend a technology conference where about 90% or more of the participants were women. I would highly recommend it to women already in the field, as well as to those thinking about exploring it, —and I’m looking forward to next year’s event.