Connecting the people, processes and knowledge of an organisation is a challenge common to many small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs). In an increasingly competitive business environment characterised by mounting regulatory pressures, companies are searching for efficient ways to record, store and manage information often scattered across different systems, isolated in corporate divisions and spread across geographic locations.

According to a recent study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, 70 per cent of executives at SMBs believe that managing data across different silos represents ‘more than a moderate constraint’ to achieving their business objectives. Vendors are currently offering a plethora of conferencing, communication and application tools that support the sharing of information, yet as standalone entities these tools struggle to function as part of the nucleus of business processes. This leads to wasted effort, misunderstanding between divisions, and ultimately, to companies missing their business goals.

Designed to implement a more effective strategy by optimising business processes, collaboration is the backbone that supports any organisation, bringing together information on customers, employees, partners, projects and finance. Effective collaboration can unite disparate elements of a company’s operations – a crucial ingredient for success.

With fewer resources, lower economies of scale and less market power than larger corporations, many SMBs also have to cope with a heavy regulatory burden. Faced with these challenges, collaboration strategies for SMBs are now being aligned with strategic business initiatives and operations. In this day and age, collaboration needs to convert information into intelligent action if it is to help organisations achieve their critical goals.

Knowledge management tools are a critical component of collaboration for mid-sized businesses, supporting business decisions with up-to-date information on the performance of their company and the market. Regardless of which team has ownership of it, collaboration allows different business units to communicate and share this information, enabling swifter decisions on key issues.

A single enterprise database or extended ERP system enables this information to be digitised and stored immediately, where it can then be structured and enriched by hyperlinks between data. Mandatory keywords and free text search options helps to ensure that all relevant people have access to the information they require.

Today’s increasingly rigorous compliance requirements mean that companies are under more pressure than ever before to keep and manage accurate business records. But the amount of data that even a single business can produce can be staggering, and many companies are struggling to get current data properly archived. Despite their best efforts to comply, many organisations remain uncertain on exactly what data needs to be archived and retained.

A collaboration foundation that features a single source of information makes compliance much easier and more attainable. Even those companies with multiple locations know exactly where to look for information. This approach makes expensive information inventories and complex analysis unnecessary.

Successfully automating all business processes allows an organisation to plan, execute and monitor activities, establish key performance indicators and track when needs are met or action is taken. A core part of this infrastructure is the creation and maintenance of trusted data. Data is entered once, into a single database, and all transactions flow within that source. This creates an effective information management environment where information is delivered to the person – when they need it, and how they need it.

Organisational communication needs to be a formalised part of people’s everyday working lives. Knowledge and document management is about taking what one person knows and making it accessible to the rest of the organisation. All information needs to be captured and managed in a user-friendly, flexible document creation and management system that allows organisations to streamline their internal and external communication.

Most collaboration tools are designed to boost employee productivity, with project management tools in particular targeting the delivery of measurable improvements that will affect an organisation’s bottom line. A project management solution gives employees access to relevant information such as availability of people and assets, time input and budget. This type of solution also doubles up as a knowledge base for storage of all information on completed projects, which can be used as a template for new projects, saving time and increasing productivity.

Product improvements are a key factor in determining return on investment in enterprise software. Businesses need a platform to capture and retain the speedy exchange of ideas that drive innovative development across the entire organisation. Working collaboratively allows people to better understand and connect with their customers so they can act upon current and future needs. Ultimately, that means companies can develop, market and sell their products and services more easily.

Marketing often generates the second-largest expense budget for an organisation, but sales is responsible for generating revenue. A collaboration solution that promotes cooperation between marketing and sales can help companies to better identify business leads, and convert those leads into opportunities, and the opportunities into wins. It can also decrease sales times, optimise hand-overs between marketing, sales and services teams, and ramp-up time for new sales personnel.

But software must also be easy to use. The judges are not the IT department, but the people who use the solution as part of their work. Ultimately, ease of use is about speed to return on investment: the faster a technology can be learned, the sooner the organisation can benefit.

Any collaboration effort needs to be closely aligned to an organisation’s critical business initiatives. For SMBs in particular, a solution that incorporates a single, centralised database is well worth considering as a faster, easier and less expensive solution to implement.

Collaboration capabilities that are an intrinsic part of a system used every day minimises the risk that can stem from change. Best-of-breed solutions can make sense for the larger end of the organisational spectrum, where IT budgets and resources are correspondingly greater. But such solutions historically take considerable time to implement, driving up costs and extending the time to reach return on investment.

Enterprise collaboration systems offer all of the elements necessary for successful collaboration, not by layering a set of separate solutions onto the existing business software, but by being a part of the existing core business data and processes.