We started looking for suitable collaborative tools by looking at Gartners Magic Quadrant for Social Software in the Workplace – a lovely chart that plots all the movers and shakers in the social media space. We could quickly rule out tools that seemed too CRMy, had a pricing model that ruled them out (i.e per user) or too business focussed. After a few rounds of testing we were left looking at….
The Candidate Tools
SocialText – a commercial enterprise wiki with a social layer
One of the most interesting things about SocialText are what it calls Signals, which are a bit like Twitter for the organisation, except Signals include tweet-like messages AND document changes. Very nice. We found the blogging tools very poor though – with blog posts essentially being wiki pages.
Like most wikis you can embed tags to give pages more functionality (such as showing a list of Recent Changes, or items from a Delicious feed etc). This means that you can cobble the functionality you need together very quickly. One example we played with was for the IT Support Office to individually use Delicious to bookmark and tag fixes they found out in the rest of the web and have them “collected” back on their wiki pages.
One of the “killer” features of SocialText is it’s Desktop application which, like email, tells you when something new has happened. This is an essentially component of any new collaborative tool because it “pulls you back” rather than becoming “another place to check”.
Jive – a commercial forum-based tool with wikis and blogs etc
Jive has a lot of polish with regards to the interface. It is easy to create content.
LifeRay Portal and LifeRay Social Office – a java-based, open source portal tool
LifeRay is an astounding product. When you initially log in, you just drag the components you need into your community site ( pages, wikis, blogs, calendars ) and then invite people in. This is staggeringly easy to do, like having a Ning-builder (but better). The LifeRay Social Office suite is sort of a “pre-built” version of the portal.
If you have ANY java abilities at all this is worth a look. I was slightly scared by having to compile CSS into jar files to change the look and feel and work with a gazillion XML files but some people can eat that geekery for breakfast.
Elgg – a php-based “community in the box”
Elgg is immediately likeable. You create Groups that have blogs, discussions, files, wiki pages etc. The problem with Elgg (for us at least) was to do with the permissions model, or who can see what. It’s funny but with almost ALL these tools, the permissions model is where the pain is… And often, it’s not that it’s difficult, it’s just that it’s poorly communicated. You can’t see who can see what…
Other Tools Worth Considering?
Half way through the trials we kind of re-discovered Confluence, a commercial enterprise wiki with an impressive list of plugins (including Sharepoint connectors which may come in handy at some point).
And later I stumbled across Mike2.0 which is interesting in two ways. Firstly, it is attempting to share the knowledge about collaboration… and secondly, it attempts a shot at combining some best of breed open source tools into one suite. You can download omCollab which is WordPress, MediaWiki, phpBB and other tools all rolled into one seamless environment. It’s a great idea… it almost works… but there are seams (and it’s fun to install).
Some of the others we tinkered with are listed in my Delicious tag for collaboration .
The Difficulties of Evaluation Community Software
Because collaboration is almost impossible to simulate… the plan is/was to get as many teams actually using these tools on short length actual projects so that we could get reliable feedback about what works and what doesn’t. So, through a process of “walking about a lot” I met as many different teams at the university and badgered them into helping test the tools. We now have teams sharing content daily … and others tinkering at the edges. It’s a good mix and so far has been a damn sight more productive than attempting to evaluate what the organisation needs without people in the mix.
The next post will be about some of the features and bugs that we found along the way.
p.s This post would have been a lot longer, in fact it was, but somehow WordPress lost it and I’m still a bit grumpy about it… As it turned out, it’s probably a better blog post for being shorter…. still… grr!