Introduction: The Changing Face of Collaboration
Collaboration is an essential aspect of any business activity. When coworkers, clients, suppliers, partners, customers, and colleagues share information and ideas, they accelerate business activity and create new value.
The value of collaboration is well understood, which is why businesses invest heavily in physical workspaces, communication technology, and information technology that enables more effective information and idea sharing. Collaboration is a fundamental human impulse—to ask an opinion, seek advice, or seek out a critical piece of information before taking action. And it is that essential aspect of collaboration that is driving profound changes in the way people work today.
New technologies that make workers more mobile are changing how people work and where they work. In the not so distant past, health care professionals would crowd around an X-ray film that hung on a light wall. Now, those same health care professionals can look at an X-ray image on an iPad while engaged in a conference call with a specialist located half way around the world who is looking at the same image.
In fact, mobile technologies ranging from smart phone email access, to specialized phone and tablet-based business applications, to video conferencing and file sharing can now be done from any location on a variety of mobile devices. Workers striving for better collaboration are key drivers behind the adoption of mobile technologies in the work place. However, it’s not just mobile devices that are making more dynamically collaborative work possible. Cloud-based resources make it possible for people to have a common experience across all their devices, from desktops to tablets and everything in between. This kind of unified work experience is happening in offices, at home, and on the road.
Why are cloud-based applications so important to better collaboration? These services, based on vast datacenter resources that can be accessed over any Internet connection, provide users with large-scale computing resources at a low cost. This scalability enables companies to both run business applications and store large amounts of data—all while being readily accessible to employees regardless of location. One of the most cost-effective uses of cloud computing is file sharing. Why is file sharing so important in today's increasingly mobile and collaborative work environment? Let’s take a look.
Advantages of Cloud-Based File Sharing
File sharing is an essential capability in any collaborative work environment. In the past, workers brought physical files to meetings or left them on a colleague's desk. Today, employees email files to each other or access them through corporate content management systems. Not only true of documents, nearly all work is now electronic. Medical records and images, video clips, engineering plans, financial data, business activity reports, marketing collateral, online training and seminars, and many more types of information spend their functional lives in digital format.
The sheer quantity of electronic information, in addition to the substantial size of many file types in routine use today, require that companies have advanced content management tools in order to work effectively. There are a number of cloud-based content management and file sharing solutions available in the market today. Like other cloud-based business solutions, they offer distinct advantages over traditional, on-site implementations of file management systems. These advantages include:
- Cloud-based file sharing solutions are faster. Emailing files to coworkers works well if a file is small, but email is a very inefficient way to transfer large files. As data files contain more information, they become larger. Even small documents can generate a large file size. For instance, the complete page layout files of a simple white paper will contain not only text and images, but document template information, fonts, revision history, color pallets, and other information that can easily make the file too large to email. Cloud-based systems enable faster file transfers, and some can be set up to automatically save the most current version of a file.
- File access from anywhere, anytime. Cloud-based file sharing systems are Internet-accessible. Accessing files in a cloud-based system can be done just as easily from a tablet in an airport or from a desktop computer in the office.
- Low entry cost and faster ramp-up. With a cloud-based file sharing solution, there is no investment in servers and large capacity disk systems to store data, and there is no software deployment. Most cloud-based systems are subscription-based services that are fully available once an account is opened.
- Infinite scalability. More business applications produce more data, and over time, data storage requirements increase. Storage capacity is not the only issue, however. Companies that depend on large amounts of data and large data files also depend on high performance systems to deliver that information when it is needed. Cloud-based systems scale to the demands of any business user. As a company's file sharing needs grow, it is no longer necessary to invest in larger capacity in-house systems. Expanding companies simply adjust the service plan of their cloud-based solution to more adequately meet their needs.
The growing demand for larger quantities of data to support business functions means that many small and mid-sized businesses have data management and file sharing needs that can only be supported by large capacity systems. Cloud-based file sharing provides a large scale content management solution that is available to businesses of all sizes. Here are several examples that show how businesses take advantage of cloud-based file sharing:
- Rapid transfer of large files. Greystone Design Group Inc., a design firm that provides planning and technical support for the Canadian retail industry, must coordinate design, drafting, research, project management, and support between staff, clients, consultants, and professionals. To do this, they share many sizable drawings and documents. After struggling with clogged email and undeliverable files, Greystone began using a cloud-based file sharing solution that freed up email resources, saved time, and proved to be a more reliable collaboration tool.
- Central location for team collaboration files. Using the cloud for file storage and transfer works especially well when collaborating with subcontractors who need special access to read and alter files so projects can be completed on time. Stewart Engineering Unlimited, Inc. acts as subcontractor in land development, surveying, and construction projects. They work collaboratively with other contractors to maintain project files. Stewart Engineering used to spend a lot of time administering its own FTP site. However, moving to a cloud-based file sharing solution reduced their administrative overhead while providing greater control over the shared content.
- Secure access to files and information. Diamond Hill Capital Management, Inc. provides investment management services to its clients. The company previously emailed statements to clients. The process was insecure and time-consuming due to attaching files and checking them before sending. Transferring statements using a cloud-based file sharing solution provided a more efficient and secure solution. The solution was also more convenient for clients who could access personal folders to view current and past statements in one location.
Essential Capabilities of a Business-Grade File Sharing Solution
File sharing is more than just a quick way to transfer large files typically sent via email. A business-grade file sharing solution is a collaboration tool that enables coworkers to safely exchange and collaboratively modify files that are an important part of a business process. An effective business-grade file sharing solution must have strong usability features, administrative controls, and robust security features.
The following sections detail important features that any business-grade file sharing solution should support:
Usability Features – File sharing is such a routine activity in many business operations that a business-grade file sharing solution must be accessible and easy to use. It should also support other user functions. These include
- File and folder management. Staff should have a user-friendly interface to files that allows viewing, downloading, and transferring. Although all users may not need to send large files, any business-grade solution should support the transfer and management of large file sizes.
- File synchronization. Users should be able to sync their files across all devices, including desktop/laptop, tablets, and mobile phones. This includes specifying folders on specific devices for file synchronization.
- Content management functions. Users should be able to perform content searches and file versioning.
- Mobile device support. Workers on the road should be able to access files from anywhere to maximize productivity. A sophisticated, business-grade solution will provide a suite of mobile tools for all of the popular tablets and smart phones.
- Integration with other business apps. Business-grade file sharing solutions should provide plug-ins that enable employees to transfer files using familiar business applications like Microsoft® Outlook™.
- Tracking and alerts. A business-grade file sharing system should provide tracking and receipt confirmations so users know recipients have received and downloaded files.
- Backups. The file sharing system should allow for manual or automatic back up of files quickly restore lost files.
Administrator Features – A good business-grade solution provides controls that enable the global administration of a company’s file sharing activities. These administrative functions include:
- Web portal. A business-grade file sharing solution should have functions that enable a company to create its own web-based portal with customized branding and logos. This enables companies to set up their own controlled-access file sharing portal that maintains consistency and integrity with their other business operations.
- Easily manage folders and folder access. This enables companies to create limited-access folders for teams, work groups, clients, customers, and others. These workers can only see those folders for which they have been granted access.
- Tools for automating administrative functions. Business-grade file sharing solutions should provide automation tools for file uploads, manage user groups through spreadsheets, integrate with other business applications such as Outlook, and build custom forms for users.
- User activity reporting. Business-grade file sharing solutions should have tools for generating activity reports that show when file uploads and downloads occur and who is engaged in file sharing activities.
Security Controls – Information security is one of the most critically important aspects of file sharing. On a day-to-day basis, businesses handle information that is not only proprietary to their operations but may be governed by regulatory compliance. A business-grade file sharing solution must be able to assure the security of shared files and information. Essential security features include:
- Access management and control. A business-grade file sharing solution must be able to provide fine-grained access control. This means certain rights, such as upload, download, read, write, and delete, can be assigned to groups or individuals and restricted on a file-by-file basis. Different people within groups can have different rights. It should also be possible to remotely wipe data from mobile devices. This level of flexibility in access control is essential in providing a robust file sharing environment suitable for business use.
- User authentication. Password protection and user accounts provide essential protection for business files being stored and transferred.
- End-to-end data encryption. Business-grade file sharing solutions should support data encryption on client devices, in storage, and during the transmission of data.
- Regulatory compliance. Some information must comply with regulations, like the Sarbanes-Oxley standards, which specify how personal data is to be managed and stored. Business-grade file sharing solutions should store information in conformity with these standards.
Getting Started with Cloud-Based File Sharing
File sharing is a powerful collaboration tool, and there are clear advantages in adopting a cloud-based solution. Cloud-based file sharing not only has lower start-up and maintenance costs, it is readily accessible to mobile workers and a geographically distributed business ecosystem. The challenge in selecting a cloud-based solution is choosing one that is built for business. Many cloud-based file sharing solutions available today began as simple solution to serve a consumer market. A business-grade file sharing solution, like ShareFile by Citrix, takes cloud-based file sharing to the next level by offering business-grade features such as advanced administrative controls and strong security features. When evaluating solutions for use in business, it is important to look closely at these capabilities:
- The solution needs to have a full range of user features, administrative controls, and strong security features that protect business data and conform to regulatory compliance standards.
- The solution needs to be built for business. The solution provider should offer full support for corporate customers, including business account management and 24-hour technical support.
- The solution needs to be built for performance. A file sharing solution provider should be able to demonstrate they have a secure infrastructure that maintains performance under heavy loads.
- The solution needs to be reliable. Because collaboration happens everywhere at all times of day, major service interruptions are not acceptable.
Finally, take full advantage of free-trial offerings, which provide an outstanding opportunity to put a solution to the test to determine whether it meets required business needs.
David Talbott is a Technology Analyst who specializes in mobile and cloud based technologies that are altering the way businesses operate and changing how people work.