An organization I work with recently asked me to recommend a collaboration solution. While we work extensively with collaboration tool giants such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, and Zoom in my day-to-day consulting work for large public sector organizations, we were keen to look outside the box for a solution and provider that would be a good fit with the specific requirements of this much smaller organization, rather than just be led by market dominance. To this end, we decided to take the opportunity to review the market as a whole. Surely, we thought, we’d find a few alternatives that could give these industry giants a run for their money.
What we found was a much richer range of choices than we’d previously imagined. Our initial search for suitable candidates using word of mouth and the Internet resulted in no fewer than 37 candidates. How on earth could we effectively narrow that down in order to make the correct choice? We determined the only way was to apply a structured evaluation methodology. I don’t intend to use this article to conclude which solutions are good or bad — that’s a job for the analysts. I want to use our experience to give you pointers on how to narrow the field and select the collaboration platform that is right for your employees.
With that in mind, here’s a rough step-by-step guide on how to go about things.
1. Define your requirements
Collaboration encompasses a range of capabilities, and functionality varies widely across products. Key capabilities include:
- Personal messaging
- Group chat
- Topic-based conversations
- Shared calendars
- Document management and collaboration
- Voice and video calling
- Meetings and desktop conferencing
- Project management
- Task management
Some solutions go further by adding capability such as guest access, call recording, customer relationship management, time management, project management, and task management.
Consider what is important to you. Do you have any must-have requirements? What about desirable enhancements? In this instance, our priorities were group communications and document management and collaboration.
2. The first sift
You can’t evaluate too many options — 37 in our case — in detail, so the first task is to narrow the list to a manageable number. We did that purely by using public domain information. One characteristic of these cloud-based services is that they are Internet- and web-based; almost all provide details of their pricing structure and feature sets online. We based our first assessment on a list of eight key features. We created a feature matrix and assigned “yes,” “probably,” “possibly,” and “no” against each capability for each solution based on what we found online. Almost all of the solutions supported the chat requirements we were looking for, but we were able to eliminate many due to limitations in their group collaboration capability. That very quickly got us down to a short list of 12 solutions that seemed to meet most of our requirements. Your unique requirements may result in a different list. If project and task management is important to you that will certainly be the case.
3. License model and cost
Now in possession of a 12-solution short list, we assessed which license model would be right for us for each option. Almost all solutions have a free option but, in all cases, we concluded that this would be too restrictive and opted for a paid option. At that stage we were able to calculate the projected cost for each solution. That resulted in the loss of a further three options for which the cost was higher than alternatives and we could identify no discernible functional benefit. With that said, however, your perception of benefit will be different from ours and you may feel the additional cost delivers worthwhile added value.
4. Initial test
We expanded the list of eight key requirements to a broader list of around 20 desirable features. This was approaching a level of detail that was hard to derive from the website information, so a real test was necessary. We went into the initial test phase with nine options on the table. That was enough — I think it would be very difficult to effectively test any higher a number while maintaining your sanity. We kept the first test very simple — undertaken by a single person between desktop, web, and mobile clients. This worked as a straightforward check of whether each solution did actually deliver the expected functionality. A further four fell by the wayside; we deemed a couple as too complex while two others failed to live up to expectations.
5. Collaborative test
We took forward five solutions to a more detailed collaborative test, carried out using each tool’s meetings capabilities with a minimum of three participants for an hour-long session. At this stage, we requested a formal trial from each vendor and tested the paid versions. We were looking to gain an understanding of how each solution worked in a real collaborative environment. How easy is it to follow a chat or conversation, schedule a meeting, join a meeting and share documents, co-edit a shared document, and so on? To date, this has resulted in two further eliminations — one due to lack of features and the other because it cannot practically be configured to meet our requirement. This is the stage we are at now — confident that we have three short-listed solutions that could meet the requirement. Next we are now going to increase the number of users and run another collaborative test session with a view on selecting a final winner based on fit with the requirements and usability.
6. Don’t forget
It’s important to remember that functionality isn’t the only thing that matters. We also took account of additional factors such as cost, privacy and security, ease of management, and support resources, eliminating at least one potential solution because of shortcomings in each of the above. Furthermore, document everything you do. We kept it simple and concise in a basic spreadsheet — that’s all that should be required in order to keep on top of things.
Hopefully the process described above gives an insight into how it is possible to evaluate a large set of potential collaboration solutions in an effective, but proportionate, manner. I’m just glad we don’t have to start over – I think the list of candidates is growing on a daily basis!