8 Ways To Judge Collaboration Technology Vendors

Feb 12, 2013 (04:02 AM EST)

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As you've probably noticed, many enterprise collaboration vendors are starting to look very similar in both appearance and functionality. In fact, if you were to visit a collaboration conference hall and cover up the vendor logos, it would be hard to tell who is who.

Vendors know this, and customers know it too. A common challenge for many companies is how to evaluate the various vendors out there. Too often I hear about companies that choose a vendor only to realize that they picked the wrong one, usually because they never went through a scoring or evaluation process.

I'll discuss the actual evaluation process in an upcoming post, but first let's look at eight variables that all vendors in the enterprise collaboration space compete against. You might want to add other relevant variables to this list, and I strongly encourage you to do so. Your list should make sense for you and your company.

Jacob Morgan's The Collaboration Organization is a comprehensive strategy guide on how to use emerging collaboration strategies and technologies to solve business problems in the enterprise. It has been endorsed by the former CIO of the USA, CMO of SAP, CMO of Dell, CEO of TELUS, CEO of Unisys and dozens of other business leaders from around the world.

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1. Price

The basis for this is simple: How much does the vendor charge for use of its platform?

The two most common ways vendors charge are per seat (user) and per page view. Thus it's important to understand how many users you want to include. Consider this question in a few different timeframes: what it will cost now, in six months, in one year, in two years, and beyond two years. You don't need to have exact numbers, but it will help you think in terms of cost. Perhaps for the first year, you want to try piloting this concept to a small team of 100 employees. After two years, you might want to roll out the platform to thousands of employees -- this is something you need to consider. Another price factor to consider is whether you can add or remove users without incurring any penalties or altering the cost of each seat purchased.

[ Need to narrow your choices? Read our Enterprise Social Networks: Must-Have Features Guide. ]

2. Features

What exactly can this platform do for you, and what makes it different from the others?

As mentioned, many vendors seem to offer similar feature sets. The best way to determine whether a particular vendor offers the features you need is to develop a set of use cases and then map them to feature requirements. Some vendors offer collaboration solutions specifically for employees, while others support external customer communities. That's why it's important to consider several different timeframes. If you start off working with a vendor that offers only employee collaboration features and then decide you also want to collaborate with employees, you could be forced to work with an additional vendor.

3. People

You want to be sure you're working with a vendor that offers not only a great product but also people who will treat you well. I've referred vendors to several clients in the past, only to find that the vendors were rude or promised things they never delivered. This is not the type of vendor my clients -- or anyone else's clients -- want to work with.

Since the emergent collaboration space is constantly evolving, you're likely going to be growing and learning along with whatever vendor you go with, so it's important to be sure you're on the same page. Ask for references, and ask previous customers what they found easy -- and what was frustrating -- about working together. If the vendor typically works with enterprise clients and you are a small or midsize business, make sure you are treated with the same respect and care as the big enterprise customers.

4. Technology and Security

Some organizations choose on-premises solutions, others choose cloud-based solutions, and still others choose a hybrid of the two. Every organization has its own measures of what it considers secure. Whatever your choice, it's important to ensure that security is taken care of (usually by your IT folks) and that your data are safe. On the technology side, the platform should be flexible for both your current needs and your future plans.

When it comes to the technology and security of a platform, you'll no doubt run into "cloud versus on-premises" discussions. It's crucial to engage IT in this decision.

5. Customization and Integration

Most organizations want the ability to integrate other systems and customize their platform as they see fit. Perhaps it's important to pull in legacy system documents and edit that information within the platform, for example, or integrate with a single sign-on vendor. Some vendors are more flexible than others, so determine what you want to customize and integrate.

6. Ease of Use and Intuitiveness

Obviously, it's important for everyone in your organization to be able to use the platform you select. I've seen cases in which the platform itself was a key barrier to adoption because employees had no idea what to do or how to navigate. I once spoke with a client who said, "We want our 60-year-old secretary who still uses a typewriter to be able to figure this out." You can also test this among your employees and collect feedback. Many vendors today have built their interfaces to look like popular social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to bring that level of familiarity to the enterprise.

The fact that a vendor has a technologically amazing platform doesn't mean that it is the best choice for your company. If the platform isn't easy to use and intuitive, don't bother with it.

7. Support and Maintenance

Make sure your vendor offers an adequate support package. Support and maintenance fees vary dramatically, with some vendors charging more than 20 percent of their annual license fee and others charging nothing.

It's also important to understand when new versions of the product are released as well as where those new versions and upgrade ideas are coming from. Some vendors pride themselves on integrating customer feedback in their product development cycle; others stick strictly to their own internal roadmap.

Other factors to note: the availability of dedicated support lines, support hours (some are 24/7, others are more limited), a customer support community, any additional fees, and what exactly the support packages cover. Some vendors provide support only up to a certain point of customization; if you "over-customize" the product they will no longer support your modifications for future changes and versions.

8. Vertical Expertise

Although many users disagree about the relevance of vertical expertise for a vendor, many organizations consider this an important factor in evaluating potential technology solutions. One vendor might have more clients in pharmaceutical or government, for example, while another is more focused on higher education or technology. Some vendors are clearly specialized for certain industries, but many platforms can be used horizontally across several verticals. I have not found vertical expertise to be a crucial factor in vendor selection unless your company needs something very specific.

Finally, look for thought leadership and resource materials. I didn't include these in the above list of variables because it's not something you would realistically judge a vendor on, but if you find that two vendors are almost equal, it might be a factor to consider. Regular releases of educational material such as webinars, whitepapers and speakers are a great way for vendors to educate clients and share new ideas and insights. In an industry that's changing and evolving as rapidly as collaboration technology, it's best to work with a vendor that will continuously provide valuable insights and resources and that will help you on your collaborative journey.

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