Some time ago, my marketing agency asked me what online collaboration tools we use for business and with our clients, and would we want to use those tools in our work with them also?
Slightly dumbstruck and with some hesitation, I answered, “Ummm…well, none actually; we haven’t really felt the need for team collaboration tools so far.” Then FOMO kicked in and I felt that we may be missing a trick here – maybe fallen behind or old school – which is the last thing we want as a cutting-edge tech company!
So I gave it some due thought, looked around, and you know what? We actually absolutely and fully use group collaboration tools, every single day and all day. It was just my perception that was off.
In this post, I’ll give you a very basic definition of collaboration and collaboration tools, and what digital collaboration tools are used for in business and creative services. Then I’ll talk about the good, bad, and ugly aspects of using collaboration tools.
Next, I’ll give some examples of enterprise collaboration tools and guidelines for picking the best collaboration tool for your team or project. Finally, I’ll show you how we’ve streamlined G Suite with VOGSY to create the type of creative Google cloud collaboration that keeps us on track and successful.
What is collaboration, anyway?
So many tools, apps and services jumped on the digital collaboration bandwagon that it’s hard to even know what “collaboration” is supposed to mean anymore. Let’s break it down to its most essential meaning:
Collaboration is two or more people working together in order to achieve an outcome.
So, that’s been around for…ever, basically. What’s different today is that we can work together with anyone, at anytime, and from anywhere – thanks to online and cloud collaboration tools. Since many projects are created in a virtual reality, project management collaboration tools ensure that the outcome is mutually understood and agreed upon, and then tracked throughout the duration of the work.
What a relief! We are as cutting-edge as we set out to be, and our chosen web collaboration tools have become so ingrained in our daily processes that we don’t even notice them anymore.
What are collaboration tools for (services) businesses?
Group collaboration tools for business use come in many shapes and sizes. Some focus on the internal organization (generally referred to as enterprise collaboration tools or workplace collaboration tools), while others are online collaboration tools that allow you to build groups or teams virtually, across organizations. I’ll list some features of different types a little later, but no matter the collaboration tool, its purpose will always include one or more from the following list:
Collaboration tools do one or more of the following:
- Connect people across time and distance
- Create a team around a project or common goal
- Streamline sharing of files, comments, etc.
- Keep a joint project under control
- Support the collaboration around creative processes
- Manage customer or stakeholder input, feedback, and expectations
- Serve as a communication channel
Why would you want a collaboration tool (or even several)?
Let’s stick with the knowledge economy, since that is closest to my heart and everyday work. Suppose that you are delivering a project to a client. There are roughly 3 things that you need to control: time, money and quality of outcome (as explained in our article, Project Manager Roles, Responsibilities & Expectations). Can collaboration tools help with project management?
The good news: Take control of projects
The good news is that Yes, collaboration tools can help you control your projects’ time, expense, and quality – at least to some degree (I’ll go into that in a moment). When you are leading a services business, you’re hopefully already be tracking some of these metrics as KPIs: timelines, hours, costs, profitability, customer satisfaction. Some types of collaboration tools can help you gather the data you need.
In order to get some answers, I spoke to some owners and managers in service organizations to get their take on the use of collaboration tools. The main reason they offered for having collaboration tools is control.
The two main questions that professional services leaders told me they want answered are:
- Is this project on track?
- Are we in a good place with the customer?
You cannot quickly and easily answer these questions if the information is scattered all over the place. Collaboration tools can keep project management and team communication streamlined.
When set up properly, collaboration software can tell you if your project will be completed within the agreed upon timelines; will deliver the agreed upon outcomes; and remain within the agreed upon budget, while staying as profitable as you calculated it to be.
Online collaboration tools can help you with the “good place with the customer” element as well. Customer expectations shift. You’ll likely recognize the situation where you had every detail neatly documented and agreed upon before you start, only to find that a customer’s understanding of the outcome has…matured…as the project progresses.
Luckily, collaboration tools can help there too, by documenting clear expectations and tracking each step or shift along the way.
Collaboration tools will help you:
- Track timelines for the completion of deliverables/milestones
- Split the work and set tasks for individuals or teams
- Track hours spent and external cost
- Track cost vs customer budget
- Track customer satisfaction
- Share documents securely
- Message updates and “news”
Now, the bad news: Not a replacement for good organization
There exists no single collaboration tool that can deliver every single piece of functionality you need to run your business.
And hardest to swallow:
Collaboration tools are not a replacement for properly organizing your business.
In fact, if you don’t have your operation under control, collaboration tools will simply magnify your issues. So, before you transition into a new set of collaboration tools for business, make sure you first have your core operating model running smoothly!
Many businesses don’t realize that they already have a ton of different unconnected data sources, which need to be assessed before new organization and collaboration tools are introduced. If you’d like to do some more reading on data silos, read our article, What Are Information Silos? Business Problems & Organizational Fixes.
And finally, the ugly news: Fatigue and overload
“Too much of a good thing.”
That’s the gist of the feedback I got on the negative aspects of project collaboration tools. Sometimes, even with the goal of simplifying project management and workplace collaboration, the solution can turn into a problem itself.
Take communication tools for example: They can (and do!) invoke heavy FOMO in some people, and before you know it, they will be as hooked on Slack as they are on their Socials. And that is not a good thing. Participating in a cacophony of updates can be fun, but it is a million miles away from getting better results with less work and higher profits. The solution turned into a problem.
You cannot run your business on collaboration tools and “hope for the best.”
Collaboration tools are tools, and only in the hands of a competent owner, manager, or team can these tools serve your business well.
I have done a fair bit of talking and writing about simplicity in services businesses. If you’re interested in the topic, you can listen to this podcast that I did with the Bureau of Digital or download a white paper on Simplicity that we did with the good folks at Service Performance Insight.
A Culture of Simplicity: A Podcast with Bureau of Digital
Examples of collaboration tools for different needs
The definition of collaboration tools is extremely broad. Something as simple as email can be qualified as a collaboration tool – certainly if you add something like Hiver, which creates collaborative shared inboxes for project teams. Even video conferencing, like Zoom, is technically an online collaboration tool. But that’s only a start.
Here are some online collaboration tools categorized into areas most relevant to the services industry. I put one well-known example for each type of collaboration tool. Google their alternatives and you’ll find all the competing tools as well as the pros and cons to each.
Examples of online collaboration tools
- Communication tools – Slack
- Project boards – Trello
- Task management – Asana
- Client collaboration – Basecamp
- Software development team collaboration – Jira
- File sharing tools – Dropbox
- Design tools – Invision
- Collaboration platforms – Google Cloud and G Suite
When you take a closer look at some of these web collaboration tools, you will see that there are many “crossover areas.” For instance, some task management tools have a client directory that will allow you to share comments, documents, or updates with external clients. Whilst other project collaboration tools include basic scheduling functionality.
Ultimately, though, each collaboration tool has its “core DNA,” and typically, any add-on functionality is not robust enough for the heavy user. As you decide what tool(s) to go for, consider your main needs.
Pick the collaboration tool with “core DNA” that most closely resembles yours.
- Are you heavily production-focused with a young team in need of granular direction? Go for a collaboration tool that originates from task management.
- Do you have many customer approval cycles such as in content or video production? Don’t worry about task management. Choose something that supports the creative process, where you can document exchanges with your client so that you don’t lose their input and approvals.
The best advice I heard from my industry compatriots was to keep it simple. Make sure that you know what you want to get out of a collaboration tool and stick to that. Don’t try to stretch a tool past its functionality, and don’t create such a patchwork quilt of tools that you lose sight of your actual work.
So what do we use ourselves?
Looping back to the beginning of my story: After my initial confusion, I realized that at VOGSY we are pretty much completely collaborative in everything that we do.
Several years ago, we decided to hang our tech company hat on Google technology. Rather than look at a bunch of different collaboration tools, we saw Google Cloud and G Suite as the creative collaboration platform that would allow us to collaborate internally and externally straight from inside our most commonly used apps, like Docs and Sheets.
We use a host of Google tech stack in our dev efforts (plus Jira and GitHub). The informal communication between product management and dev is done through G Suite. All related documentation is on Team Drive.
Every single thing we write is either a Google Doc, Sheet or Slide. The collaboration is built in: we can simply share, co-create, comment, revise, set tasks – all inside the actual docs that we are working on. We do this both internally and with our vendors.
Then of course, in order to get the full picture of everything, we also “eat our own dog food” by using the VOGSY platform for both internal and external processes. Now, this is a plug, yes. But I can’t complete my story without telling you about how we use our own stuff.
Within our VOGSY app, we have our own collaboration features on top of the G Suite web collaboration tools. To give you an idea of what that looks like, here is a demo project card from the VOGSY dashboard.
- “Follow” for notifications on this project
- “Pin” this project to a board
- See which team members are connected to this project
- See links to related documents on Drive
- Start online conversations from this dashboard
- @mention people
- Set tasks for team members
- Share notes
- Access any new opportunities related to this project
- Track the project planning
- See your KPIs in real time
We extend Google’s G Suite by linking to the appropriate Drive folders. We use Chat to speak to team members or the customer; we leverage Docs for templates; Sheets for analytical reporting; and we’ve integrated Google Forms to conduct project review surveys at multiple stages. The list goes on, and we are continually adding new functionality!
So back to those questions that service leaders want answered: Is this project on track? Are my clients happy? VOGSY + G Suite puts the information we need to answer those questions all in one place.
Online collaboration tools are a necessity in the digital workplace, and it’s easy to get bogged down with all the options and functionality. The most important thing is to choose the tool that shares the DNA of the job you need it for.
Collaboration tools are great for project management, team and stakeholder communication, and streamlining the sharing of information. However, no tool will ever overcome a lack of discipline, undefined KPIs, or not keeping your processes as simple as possible.
Get your business in order before you try to add new functionality, as it will just magnify your issues, not solve them.
If you haven’t found a collaboration platform that suits your business needs, and would like to know more about how you could use VOGSY and Google Cloud/G Suite for your own success, please schedule a demo!
Mark van Leeuwen is the CEO of VOGSY, the Google business software pioneers. Mark has held leading roles in software and service businesses on all continents and led growth in uncharted territories for 20 years. He’s also a stickler for simplicity and transparency and doing more with less.