This evening's Gurteen Knowledge Cafe produced the usual rich mix of conversations, this time around social media. The most memorable for me went something like this (condensed version):
Me: Hi - I'm a freelance doing some work on communities of practice... setting up a system for people in different countries to share information and ideas about their projects. What are you working on?
John: well, my company has just been taken over, and I'm one of the casualties. Don't mind though, it's going to be messy. One group uses Notes, and one uses Exchange, and there's no way to get them to integrate.
Me: well, I spent a lot of time last year working on open source systems like Drupal which developers say can do pretty much anything you want ... blogs, forums, file libraries, profiles ... you just add another module. But .... now I'm not so sure it is the all-in-one solution we need. It requires quite a bit of customising and maintenance, and people have to learn something very different from their day-to-day tools. I'm impressed by all the free or low cost tools coming out ...
John: Ahh! Google! We've been trying the enterprise solutions that tie together a start page, Gmail, instant messaging, calendars, web page creation and so on. It's going to take my company a year to decide which way to go on their systems, and by that time Google will have a suite of tools that will do the job. We have been looking seriously at just going the Google route.
Me: Seriously? In a large company? This isn't just for individuals and nonprofits....?
Disclosure: I'm have no relationship with Google or any other supplier, but I do have a hunch that things are changing fast when it comes to setting up online systems for collaboration. The conversation gave me another nudge. The reasons are two-fold (at least):
First, it takes a lot of planning, time and expenditure to develop a customised system - particularly if you are working across different organisations or groups. To do it properly you need to do user profiles, use scenarios, wireframes (paper mock-ups), test sites and so on before you build the system. Then you have to get everyone engaged, trained, facilitated, stewarded, maintained. The time and money you should spend on the people gets eaten up by the technology ... and it may not work.
Secondly, a lot of smart knowledge management people advise a more organic process of developing communities online. Enlist the champions, work with them, spot enthusiasms and opportunities, evolve as you go. That's much easier when you have a suite of tools like those offered by Google (and others). You can start with one thing ... maybe the calendar and groups ... then bring in others. You can offer everyone a Home page to bring things together. You still need to look at the different users, scenarios and so on, but it is potentially much more flexible.
Thirdly, helping people use Google tools, or Yahoo, and other free or low cost web apps is going to be useful outside the specific project. They can start to develop mini-systems for themselves.
What I wasn't sure about was whether it might be a serious proposition that could be scaled up. My conversation this evening made me think it worth investigation on at least one of my projects. We may need a Drupal site in the middle to provide a framework, but I don't think it is where we should start. It would be interesting to see how far we could go with Google, then what extra is needed. OK, this needs a lot more thinking through, but often it is the bit of gossip that offers the big insight. Isn't that what social media is about? Including face-to-face, of course.
What are the pros and cons?
Here's a discussion group on Google Powered Office Tools, and the Wikipedia entry on Google tools.
Previously: The Great (almost free) Web Office Experiment