Staffing Management

Big Collaboration Tools for Little Companies

By Sarah Fister Gale

Jul. 16, 2013

In September 2010, Josh Leavitt’s company, JLeavitt Designs in Portland, was starting to take off. The two-year-old online marketing firm had four full-time remote employees and had just landed its first big client, an international automotive company that wanted five websites built right away. Leavitt’s team was already busy on other projects, so he brought on four freelancers to do the majority of the work.

But he had a problem. Leavitt was leaving on an extended trip to Europe, where he wasn’t certain he would have consistent internet access, and he was worried about how he would maintain oversight of the projects. “That was the first time I realized how important Basecamp was to my business,” Leavitt says.

Basecamp is a web-based project management and collaboration tool, and one of a host of social collaboration software products that Leavitt uses to keep his team connected. They use it to assign tasks, update status, manage shared documents, and problem-solve. “Basecamp is the backbone of the business,” he says.

It also was the solution to his management problem. Before leaving town, Leavitt created profiles for each of the five new projects, including key goals with tasks under each goal that were assigned to each team member, with defined outcomes and specific deadlines. Then he set a daily progress update alert through Basecamp that came to his phone each morning while he was traveling.

“In 30 minutes I could review everyone’s progress, respond to questions, and post updates,” he says. “It was so much more efficient than making separate phone calls and tracking emails for each project.”

Social collaboration tools are often touted for their ability to break down silos, and foster collaboration among vast disconnected business units—which is great if you work for a company with 5,000 employees. But small business owners like Leavitt are discovering these tools also are valuable in companies with just a few workers who wear many hats.

“Social networking gives small companies a very easy way to include everyone in file sharing, group discussions, or collaborations on important tasks,” says Stephen Ankenman, regional director of Bitrix24, a social enterprise management tool, which is free for companies with 12 or fewer employees.

They also give company owners greater control over their knowledge capital. “If all the data is shared on the company’s platform, it belongs to the company,” Ankenman says. That’s not the case when employees use personal email or DropBox to share and save files. “If someone leaves, you want that work to be stored on your intranet, not their Google profile.”

Given their expertise in compliance and productivity, human resources leaders should have a hand in selecting social networking and project-management software, as well as guiding employees in how to use them.

“In our experience, HR is often the driver of the process,” says Ankeman. Their own processes can be greatly streamlined using a social intranet, and they can be engaged to increase adoption of the tools by other departments.”

When HR is involved with choosing these tools, they can craft more appropriate privacy policies and strategies for sharing information to avoid legal issues, Kirwin says. They can also help other members of the senior leadership team understand how these tools can support strategic goals, such as increased efficiency, or shortened deliver time.

“Senior executives need to be driving the adoption of some of this technology or they tend to be fragmented in their adoption,” says Peter Kirwan, president of Collexion Inc., a new website for collectors to buy, sell, and discuss collectables. “HR can be an important evaluator of the tools but only if they have an executive-level mandate to collaborate electronically.”

He also urges HR to take advantage of the flexibility and open communication these tools create. “Using wikis would be very helpful in managing the flow of information to and from employees,” he says. “It would be a lot more valuable than the big employee handbooks that get out of date almost immediately.”

Some HR management systems that track basic employee data are adding features to facilitate worker interaction and cooperation. That shift is part of a broader expansion of the collaboration software market in recent years. As a result, small businesses now have many low and no-cost options—including Basecamp, Bitrix24, Confluence and others—to link their remote workers, share work, and improve collaboration across dispersed teams.

These tools help small businesses become more efficient, which is key to business growth, Kirwin says. “When you are small there is a lot of information being exchanged, and the more you can tie that information together the more quickly you can make decisions.”

Collexion has five full-time employees and several international contractors, and Kirwan relies on two online collaboration tools to manage them all: Confluence, a data repository and social marketing tool, and Jira a project tracking tool.

“These tools change the dynamics of the way we work,” Kirwan says. “We are not just throwing assignments over the wall and waiting for them to be finished. Everyone is integrated into the company and the work.”

They use the two tools to work on collaborative documents, create wikis, assign tasks, and record progress toward common goals. Team members can also link notes, comments and files to individual tasks, which allows the entire team to answer questions more efficiently, and to ensure everyone is up to date on the project’s status. “There is a constant knowledge flow,” he says. “It’s like Wikipedia on steroids.”

He urges small businesses to consider the value that social collaboration can bring to their own teams, even if they only have a few employees. “If you are ambitious and plan on growing, you’d be crazy not to use them,” he says. “They make you more nimble, and that’s what gives small companies a competitive advantage.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. To comment, email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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