How to select the best online collaboration tool for your organization

Having a centralized location to get work done is essential, whether you’re a regional association with volunteers spread across a city or a global association with members on every continent. So you may ask yourself – what collaboration tools are available and how will I know the right one for my group? These are important questions with no one-size-fits-all answer. Collaboration tools run the gamut, so it may be easiest to first consider the two extremes then work inward to understand the breadth of options available.

On one end you find free or low cost tools such as Google and Yahoo Groups, both of which are simple, easy to use and set up, and generally accessible by everyone. Low cost and manageability are most often identified as benefits while drawbacks are typically related to features. They are fairly generic tools that may not provide the rigidity needed by some industries or the robust feature set needed by association committees.

The other end finds powerful tools that can be completely customized, Microsoft Sharepoint for example. These options may be designed to meet your every need, but that customization comes at a high cost for both initial set-up and ongoing support. Many associations just don’t have the technical staff in house to customize and manage such platforms.

Which brings us to the middle ground – tools that provide the right balance between simplicity and ease of use, yet offer robust feature-sets without the need for complex customizations. In this middle ground exist a few options that get you going quickly, yet give you the flexibility you need to offer your committees tools in which to get work done.

Knowledge of the breadth of options available is only half the battle. How do you choose? There are a few important elements to consider, including:

  1. Efficiency. One platform with your necessary features integrated will save time for both your administrators and volunteers. If you’re currently using separate tools for email, voting, wikis, calendar, etc. then you understand the inefficiency of moving from one solution to another depending on the task at hand. Not to mention the headache of password management. Having your tools centralized in one platform will streamline efforts for your volunteers and administrators.
  2. Access. Give your people what they need, and the ability to hide features they don’t. To accomplish this, it’s vital that you understand what your team needs to get the job done. Is a shared calendar helpful? What about archiving and searching email records? Tracking action items? Meeting the broad needs of your organization should also come with a committee-level “off” switch. Too many options can be a distraction just as too few can be a hindrance. Identify a comprehensive set of needs for your entire organization, but ensure the features can be enabled/disabled if needed. 
  3. Visibility. Tracking within the tool should offer visibility into activity levels of committees or specific volunteers, which allows administrators to gauge resourcing, while simultaneously ensuring data integrity.
  4. Hosting environment. Cloud hosted is a must as it saves you time and money. Whatever you choose, ensure the service provider hosts it in a robust, scalable, and secure cloud environment.
  5. Complementary solutions. Ensure that all complementary solutions will seamlessly integrate with your collaboration tool. For example, if you use an Association Management Software (AMS) platform then you’ll want to ensure both tools can communicate effectively.

We encourage you to consider all options available while keeping in mind the specific needs of your association, and the work processes most commonly implemented by your volunteers. Choosing the right collaboration tool is no easy task, but it can be overcome with insight and patience.

About the Author

James Gray leads the team that develops and maintains Causeway, the web-based group and committee collaboration software platform built by VTM Group. The mission of his team is to provide key technical resources that bridge people and processes, enabling each client to focus on its mission rather than mechanics.