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Simple tools that make people work better together

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Technology is giving us ever more ways to work together and communicate more effectively. And you don't need an in-depth knowledge of IT or bottomless pockets to put the essentials in place. Paul Curran explains the options.

Are you doing everything yourself?

Founders of start-ups are usually run off their feet, says Martin Tanner, projects director at ADM Computing. "They end up spinning too many plates because they don't share their workload with employees. But with a little bit of planning, they can quickly delegate more to staff and focus on their core business. Long-term, it will reduce costs and increase sales."

There's plenty of technology on offer to help your team work better together. And today that means not just the people you work with, but suppliers and customers too. You probably already use email and the phone every day, but there are plenty more options.

Better real-time conversations

It helps to think about collaborative tools as splitting into two camps. In the first bunch are alternatives to email and phone calls, which will help you to have more effective real-time conversations.

Voice over Internet Protocol (or VoIP for short) has revolutionised the way people communicate by routing voice conversations over the internet and offering free or very cheap phone calls worldwide. All you need to get started is a PC, a broadband connection, speakers and a microphone. The software for using VoIP, such as Skype or Microsoft's Live Messenger, can be downloaded free from the internet.

Instant Messenger (IM) programs are available from many internet service providers, and are usually free of charge. As your business grows, you can also buy bespoke software to give you:

  • Secure IM: encrypted data transfer for sensitive conversations
  • Audit trail: a record of all IM conversations for compliance purposes

Many small businesses are now also using web conferencing to let employees participate in interactive meetings with remote teams, customers, partners and colleagues. Affordable collaborative tools like Microsoft LiveMeeting let you:

  • share information and run presentations
  • collaborate with virtual whiteboards
  • do everything you'd do face-to-face without the travel costs

Better document sharing and management

There is another group of tools loosely based around virtual workspaces, in which you can share documents.

In an online workspace, you can grant access to specific documents to anyone you want. Typically, you might store all the documents relating to one client in their own workspace. Both you, the client, and anyone else working on the job, will have access to these files from anywhere. And because workspaces are online, they don't require you to invest in a server.

Entrust Food Safety, an international audit and food safety consultancy, estimated that it would cost at least R73 000 (given the additional costs of data protection and maintenance) to run their own collaborative server. Using Microsoft's workspace application, Office Live Small Business, allowed its directors to share important documents online at zero cost.

Tim Long of IT consultancy TiGra Networks says "Office Live Small Business offers collaboration spaces and business applications completely free of charge. It lets you keep documents in a safe place online, with password access to those who need it. It allows you to share documents with clients in their own private area and means staff can work on documents at home. It's a great way to share documents between staff, and keep track of customers and projects."

Sometimes, you'll just want to share specific business applications more effectively. A good example is Business Contact Manager (BCM); an extension to the Outlook email program. BCM links emails, appointments and to-do lists to contacts and customer records. It means anyone in a company can instantly pick out an entire customer history: ideal when the phone rings, but the original salesman is on holiday or out of the office.

Suddenly, everyone in your company can deal with customers usefully. There are more tools like this for financial and other management applications too.

What's right for me?

Martin Tanner of ADM says answering a few questions will allow you to pull in the right tools for the job. Ask yourself:

  • Who's in the office, and who's out? If you use lots of home-workers or sales staff on the road, consider remote collaboration tools
  • Who needs what data? If your staff are in the dark, it's time to share company information more widely
  • And what's the budget? There's plenty available for free, but put a strategy in place for upgrading to enterprise-quality collaboration tools when possible

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