Intranets Review: Open Atrium, SharePoint, Google Sites

Intranets Review: Open Atrium, SharePoint, Google Sites

Online collaboration has long been a goal of many organizations. Interestingly enough, corporations have been much faster than nonprofits in incorporating knowledge management and collaboration technologies that comprise intranets. One might think that nonprofits have a need for greater collaboration and connection with constituents, customers and donors. However, whether wikis, knowledge management, or instant messaging, corporations have seen and captured the value of emerging technologies and concepts much faster than the nonprofit world.

Some General Comments on Intranets
I've recently had the opportunity to install Open Atrium and SharePoint 2007. My recent installations reminded me of my first experience with intranets. When I was at United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, I was in charge of Lotus QuickPlace installation on top of a Domino server. We used QuickPlace as an Intranet and for multiple Extranets. Even though the technology was almost 10 years old, I must say that intranets have not progressed much since that time. Despite all the Web 2.0 collaboration, at the heart of these systems are document management systems. Interactive tools such as discussion boards and online task management always seem to be marginally utilized, if at all.

The problem that all intranets have, of course, is that they are websites and users are not in front of them all day. Users are in front of your email and whatever document/spreadsheet/presentation they may be working on (Okay, many of you are also on facebook in the background, but that's an exception, not the rule). This is why most intranets (and facebook too!) have an email feature that brings you back into the website. This extra step actually is a barrier to online participation. Very few creative implementations have used anything other than email to over come this barrier. RSS may provide an answer, but its use seems limited.

The Options

The following are some options for intranets. The list is not exhaustive and I would encourage folks who have had experience using other platforms to post comments below.

  • Google Sites - Google sites is the easiest option to get your organization up and running on an intranet platform with minimal time and technical skill. Set up is literally just a click of a button and strives to keep the user interface and navigation as simple as possible. I look at Google Sites as a wiki on steroids because every page acts as a wiki allowing any user with appropriate security to make changes to any page. The steroids part is that the application also contains a document library, integration with Google Calendar, the ability to create structure lists, and ability to import contributed applets such as weather reports from the Google library. While easy to set up and use, its not ideal for sophisticated document management and collaboration. There's also a storage limit and no ability to create sub-sites for different teams within your site.
  • Open Atrium/Drupal - Open Atrium is a well done implementation of Drupal by Development Seed that leverages a number of contributed modules such as Organic Groups into a powerful Intranet system. In addition to document management and group calendaring, Open Atrium has a shoutbox feature that allows for organization wide microblogging (think twitter just for your organization).
    If you already have a Drupal based website, Open Atrium would be a nice add on for intranet/extranet purposes. It take a bit more sophistication to install and manage, but the additional extensibility and customization possible make the jump from a lesser system well worth it. Oh yeah, and its also open source with all the benefits therein.
  • Sharepoint - SharePoint is one of the few sources of growth for Microsoft. It serves many of the functions of an intranet such as a document repository, calendaring, and online discussions. If your organization is already in a Windows Server/Exchange environment, SharePoint can be a very powerful tool to connect people within the organization. I was disappointed though in the lack of Web 2.0 tools that are available in SharePoint Server 2007. There's no microblog, no ability to import or aggregate RSS feeds, and no internal blog feature. If you aren't in a Windows environment, there is no point in taking the time or making the investment to move to Windows environment.

Conclusions, In Short
If you are pinched for time and expertise, I would recommend Google Sites. If you want a bit more sophistication, control, and integration with the rest of your web presence (assuming you are in drupal) try Open Atrium. If you are already a Microsoft shop using Exchange and Windows Server, SharePoint is an excellent tool for your organization.

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