Open Source Content Management: Magnolia-CMS

Last month I started talking about open source alternatives to SharePoint for document management and team collaboration. Before getting into the merits of any particular solution let me say a bit more about the business problem that’s behind the evaluation. 

As a writer I read a lot and I accumulate material in the form of documents, articles, images, video clips, podcasts and web links, all of which serves as research for things I write about. As a consultant I also need to organize project files, provide the means to ensure that confidential files are maintained securely, to share documents with clients and provide them with a way to give feedback on in-process material.

My ideal content management solution would make it easy to capture material into a secure repository, organize it for retrieval, publish it to different audiences and enable some degree of collaboration. Stated more formally, the features that matter most to me can be summed up in a series of user stories that represent three perspectives.

As a content creator I need to

  • Capture documents and other items from a variety of sources into a single repository;
  • Store items that are in a different native formats (e.g., Word document, Excel, PDF, image, hyper-link);
  • Organize content according to subject headings, author, source and other metadata elements;
  • Maintain lists of work items, issues and events; and
  • Use a single point of entry for both content creation and reading.

Search

As a content reader I need to

  • Search for content using keyword values;
  • Filter a search result to refine the scope; and
  • Retrieve documents on a variety of devices (e.g., desktop, tablet, smart phone).

As a system owner I need a system that is

  • Easy to install and configure;
  • Adaptable to changing needs without programming; and
  • Well-supported by the vendor and user community.

It’s a simple list, and there are plenty of open source products out there that do all of these things. The first candidate for a close look is Magnolia-CMS.

Magnolia-CMS

Magnolia comes from Magnolia International Ltd., in Switzerland. Their focus is delivering robust content management and web site editing capabilities in order to support marketing, sales and service applications. The company has been around for more than a decade, long enough for the product to gain a lot of popularity and accumulate an impressive customer list

Provided under an Open Source license, Magnolia comes in both a community edition, and an enterprise edition. The latter offers some extra functionality, and it is distributed on a subscription fee basis. Fees, which start at about $15K annually, provide the company with a revenue stream to support continued development.

Under the hood, Magnolia is built on Java-based technology, which makes it appealing to organizations who are have adopted Java and J2EE as their platform for web-based business solutions.

For those who don’t want to get too close to the technology Magnolia is highly configurable. Business users can take on much of the site layout design and content management work that would otherwise be left up to the IT folks to administer. That said, do not under-estimate the amount of work involved in building a fully functional site. It’s a steep learning curve.

A few other first impressions from downloading and installing the community edition:

  • Download and installing the community edition is quick, simple and well-documented. Following the detailed instructions provided on the web site, I had a site up and running in less than 30 minutes.

  • Some expertise in managing an Apache / Tomcat web server is an essential skill for deploying Magnolia, even for an intranet application.

  • Lots of modules available to deliver specific functions in a customer-facing web site.

  • Documentation is very thorough and well-organized.

  • Very strong separation of author and Public (i.e., reader) access to content with separate sites within the overall framework for these two modes of access.

Magnolia is truly an enterprise-class product. It didn’t take very long to realize that it was intended for a customer with a different set of needs that mine. It is worth a serious look for anyone who is interested in a Java-based platform that offers strong content management capabilities for delivering web-based content to a broad audience. Scaling it down to fit the needs of a smaller organization would be challenging.

ECM for Small and Mid-Sized Enterprises

Managing electronic documents isn’t just a “big organization” problem. Small and mid-sized organizations need to be able to protect, organize and share electronic content just as much but they don’t have a $1 million+ budget to deal with the problem. Convinced that “making do” with file shares is not enough, a budget conscious buyer is likely to look in one of two directions, SharePoint or Open Source. While both options have plenty to offer, neither is a magic bullet.

SharePoint is attractive, especially in organizations looking for a collaboration tool. For an group of even 500 people the infrastructure and licensing costs are affordable, but getting people to use SharePoint effectively can take a long time. Often, IT leads the implementation as a technology initiative with a vision of how useful and versatile SharePoint could be. If that is tied to solving a visible, mainstream business problem people are quick to embrace it.

Too often, however, SharePoint implementations follow a “build it and they will come” pathway. SharePoint has much to offer as a technology platform but mainstream business users often don’t understand what it is or how to use it. There’s no immediate, obvious use, and the prospect of spending time and energy learning about it seems like too much trouble so people don’t come to the game. Uptake becomes limited to the few who are willing to tinker and who are forgiving about software that doesn’t do what they want right away.

An alternative that has been gaining momentum is open source ECM. Admittedly, “open source” is a not a term that inspires comfort in everyone; images of something half-built by well-meaning people in their spare time come to mind just a bit too easily. There was a time when that may have been a fair perception, but not any more. As Cheryl McKinnon outlines in a recent post, community supported software has come of age in in the ECM marketplace. There are very credible open source products available from vendors who make their living from ongoing development and support services. They offer the opportunity to get started quickly with a a ready-to-use business solution at a low entry cost, and they provide the kind of back-up that customers expect. Increasingly, both small and large organizations are choosing open source solutions to manage their electronic content.

Open source is not an instant solution. Anyone thinking of implementing a content management solution should understand that these are not simple problems and the same planning work is required no matter what solution they choose. Among other things, organizations need to understand how people will be adding material to the system, how to organize it and how to provide for search and retrieval needs. Is version control part of the picture? What about work flow, or records management? The list goes on.

Not all ECM products are the same. Depending on requirements, one solution may be a good fit right out of the box while another may need development work. Part of the selection process should include a period of downloading and trying out a few candidate products in order to gain insight into what a full scale roll-out would look like. Open Source vendors make that easy to do, and the exercise provides a chance for some hands-on learning, usually at zero expense.

 My own business problem is developing a knowledge base from a collection of a few thousand articles, presentations, research papers and assorted other documents accumulated over the past 20 years or so. Despite my best efforts to keep the collection organized it’s getting harder to find things. Over the next few months I will be downloading, installing and testing a few different open source content management products as I work through the problem of migrating the material into a more managed home.

Next: Magnolia CMS – Getting Started

6 Reasons to Like CDs

This post started with some random skips in the music on the CD player in my home stereo. The unit is just old enough that the skips prompted questions about whether to repair or replace it. A few phone calls and a couple of trips to some local audio shops delivered an ominous message: CDs as a medium for recorded music are on their way out. Major audio manufacturers have stopped making CD players; replacing one has reached the same state as replacing a VCR – can be done, but… The mainstream medium has become downloaded digital music.

My reaction has been mixed. Mostly I enjoy my iPod, at least as a portable player, and most of my music purchases in the past year or two have been from the iTunes Store. The prospect of converting a large and eclectic CD collection to a digital format is a bit daunting, but I can live with it. So why, in spite of my usual willingness to embrace new technologies, do I find myself resisting this particular innovation wave? The simple fact is that I like CDs. Here’s why:

  1. A CD player is easy to use: My favourite book on usability is still Donald Norton’s The Design of Everyday Things. A CD player is a model of user centered design. How to operate it is simple and intuitive; it is difficult to make a mistake putting in a disk and playing it. To be sure, some digital technology is at work, but it’s invisible. We don’t notice it because the whole experience focuses attention on selecting and playing nusic, not interacting with a computing device.
  2. CDs come with liner notes: Much of my music education has come informally from two sources: a generation of CBC Radio announcers who were passionate about the music and the artists they featured on the air, and a host of writers who created the liner notes packed in the jewel boxes with the CDs. Reading the notes has made me a better listener with insights about composers, artist and things to listen for in the music itself.
  3. CDs are easy to handle: The disk fits nicely in my hand, and it is reasonably forgiving if I happen to drop it or mis-handle it. Going a little further, I can borrow a CD from the public library or share one with a friend by simply picking it off a shelf. No discussion about digital media rights is required.
  4. You can give (and receive) CDs as gifts: At its best, gift-giving enriches relationships. As an avid listener I like to share music with others, and have given many CDs as gifts. Likewise, many of the disks in my collection were gifts received from friends and family members who wanted to share music that mattered to them. As much as I appreciate receiving an iTunes gift card, the experience of going to the computer and downloading an album loses much of the richness that goes with unwrapping a disk received as a gift and playing it for the first time.
  5. CDs can remind us of people and places: Handling a particular disk can evoke memories of where and when I first heard a particular piece or performer. Not long ago I was playing an album by classical Guitarist Christopher Parkening. The liner notes, inscribed by the artist himself, reminded me of a family outing some years ago when we all went to see him and baritone Jubilant Sykes in concert in Toronto. It was a great evening, topped off with a time after the performance to meet and chat with with both artists and, of course, to buy the disk he autographed.
  6. CDs last a long time: Nobody is quite sure how long an audio CD will last. Estimates seem to range between 20 and 200 years.

So where does that leave me? The original problem with the player was remedied with a professional cleaning job for less than $100. My wife and I continue to enjoy our music, but I have also begun the job of migrating the CD collection to a format that will work with a streaming media player. Will the CDs eventually move to boxes in the basement next to the vinyl LPs? Eventually, perhaps, but not for a while.

Is Yours a Know-How or a Know-Who Organization?

Have you ever read something you wrote a long time ago and then compared it to the way you think today? Cleaning up my home office on the weekend I came across a review I had written about 10 years ago about some research published in Harvard Business Review. The original research article was about knowledge management practices in a number of different organizations. Titled “What’s Your Strategy for Knowledge Management?”, it made an impression on me at the time.

 The researchers identified two generic approaches that organizations use in order to get value from what they know:

Codification: Efficient reuse of experience within a firm through documents and software tools that enable information storage and retrieval.

 Personalization: Build creative capacity through direct, person-to-person sharing of information and insights into underlying reasoning.

By showing how these strategies played out in different types of organization the authors made a case that all organizations need both strategies but one should dominate. Organizations that depend on knowledge assets that are created once and used many times should focus on codified knowledge, the “know-how” material recorded in procedures, templates and other documents that helps people get work done. Organizations that tend to deal with unique situations or solve complex problems should be more concerned with personalization – bringing people together so they can collaborate on a problem. Understanding which one is more important in a given organization should influences hiring practices, organization of work and, of course, the role of technology.

Word Map of Web 2.0 technology

So, what has changed in 10 years? The obvious thing is enabling technology with a whole generation of social computing tools used on a scale that was unimaginable a decade ago. Then, only large organizations could afford the technology to consciously support a knowledge management strategy. Now, tools like SharePoint, WebEx, and a host of on-line collaboration software are easily in reach for smaller organizations.

What hasn’t changed is that more technology is just more tools; organizations still need to understand what they do well enough to distinguish between tools that help and those that simply distract people from the business at hand. Try answering these questions about how your organization adds value for its customers:

  • Do you offer standardized or customized products and services?

  • Do you have a mature product or service, or do you depend on innovation?

  • How often do people in your organization have to work together and share what they know in order to solve new problems?

 If you found your answers leaning toward customization, innovation and problem-solving then you probably live in a “know who” organization. People are creating new knowledge; knowing who to bring together on a problem matters to you. Chances are that a technology investment that makes it easier for people to connect with each other will help, especially if you work with virtual teams. Consider a closer look at tools that encourage social networking, informal information sharing and face-to-face communication. Structured information retrieval tools are still important but mostly for organizing the reference material that aids the process and for providing access to the lessons learned from past projects.

 Social interaction creates knowledge

If your answers tended to lean the other way yours is more of a “know how” organization with a focus on consistent, efficient delivery of a mature product or service. For example, if you operate a customer support centre quick, accurate and consistent service responses matter, and fast retrieval of the information people need in order to respond customer inquiries is critical. Social networking tools have a place, but mostly to help people collaborate, sharing insights on new situations that come along and validating new material as it is being added to the knowledge base.

Good management practice should enable operating efficiencies through knowledge reuse and also the capacity to innovate through knowledge creation. It’s a balancing act at the best of times, and applying just enough discipline to balance the structure of “know how” with the emphasis on relationships that is implicit in “know who”. It’s not a static picture either; the balance point can change over time as business needs change. Technology choices are at the centre of this discussion, so be prepared to experiment a little and encourage adoption of new tools in small steps help people add value through what they do.


Moving to Linux Mint 13

Like a lot of people, I tend to view operating system upgrades as something to avoid. If forced to change I want the experience to be as simple and painless as possible. So, when the support lifetime ended for the Linux Mint version I had been running on my main desktop, there was a wee bit of angst over what to do.

For 2 years Mint had served me well as a stable, functional environment on an older desktop machine from which I had retired a copy of Windows XP. Staying with Mint was a know quantity, and version 13 had just been released in April with a 5-year support plan. It looked like a OS I could stay with for a while. Since Mint 13 offers a choice of versions the only real question was which one MATE, which continues the GNOME 2 desktop used in previous releases, or CINNAMON, which promises “something new”. Once I had downloaded and booted up live-CD sessions for both versions, CINNAMON caught my attention as worth a closer look.

Installing Mint 13 CINNAMON was as simple as an OS upgrade should be. After taking a full backup of my working files and software selections I simply let the install package do its work. In 30 minutes it installed the OS, found all of my hardware drivers, configured the nulti-media settings and installed all of the software packages that I use every day. Another hour to restore my working files and the job was done.

 

For the next month I used CINNAMON as my main desktop in order to to see how it would fare in everyday use. Overall it did well. The interface is fast, and it looks good – crisp fonts, good menu layout and some nice visual effects like windows that explode out from the center of the screen. It was easy to customize it to my own preferences for background graphic and for putting frequently used program shortcuts into the bottom panel bar or on the desktop.

The software menu is an improvement over previous versions easier to navigate, and an instant response when the mouse pointer lands on a category. One handy feature that I discovered by accident was that pointing to the top-left corner of the screen displays a tiled view of all of the screens currently active. That simple visual experience makes a switch between applications a little more satisfying than scrolling through with <ALT><TAB>. One small complaint is that sometimes I could trigger this feature accidentally by over-shooting a mouse movement to the “File” selection in a program menu.

 

It wasn’t all good. In spite of the excitement and development attention that CINNAMON is receiving, the Mint Linux Team is quick to point out that it’s not for everyone. The big issues are stability and the demands that it makes on a workstation’s graphics capability. Depending on the strength of the 3D acceleration available CINNAMON can behave unpredictably. My experience was an unexpected screen-freeze about once a week, which led me somewhat reluctantly to conclude that CINNAMON was too much spice for the in-board graphics on my aging desktop. Fortunately, the switch to MATE was as easy and uneventful as the original installation. Everything has been operating smoothly since.

After nearly 2 months of operation my assessment is that with Mint 13 project leader Clement Lefebvre (aka. Clem) and the Mint community have made a big success in producing a Linux distribution that can compete credibly in the mainstream of desktop operating systems. MATE is a great choice for anyone who simply wants a hassle-free Linux experience. For those with a more pioneering spirit, CINNAMON is an interesting development line that is worth checking out.

Web 2.0 for Project Management: Team Headquarters

Effective collaboration is the result of good communication and coordination of work. So far this series has been mostly about communication tools that appeal to small teams who don’t have much formal process in the way they approach project management. Teams like that want just enough structure to organize their work without introducing much process overhead. The strength of tools like BaseCamp and OneHub is effortless delivery of functions that promote good communication without much need to formalize the way work gets done. A lot of projects happen in that kind of setting but it can be pretty casual. As organizations get larger and the number of projects in the mix increases so does the need to pay attention to business processes. A hidden gem that addresses work coordination dimension is TeamHeadquarters (THQ) from Entry Software.

THQ offers the promise of one-stop shopping for service tickets, project management and time entry functions. It is intended mainly for IT help desks and other service organizations where day-to-day handling of incidents and service requests is knit tightly with managing a portfolio of projects. Organizations like that may execute more than 100 small projects in a year, with 20 or so in-flight at any given point in time. It is a fast-paced environment where the ability to schedule, plan and track activity is important to everyone involved. In small and mid-sized organizations, where the people working in projects are often the same people responsible for delivering on service tickets, projects and day-to-day service work compete constantly for attention. At the same time, the sheer volume of work requires team members to have easy, lightweight ways to communicate with each other.

Open up THQ, and the first impression is that a lot of time and care have gone into the user interface. The expandable menus at the left of the screen control a large content pane that occupies centre stage. Functions selected within the content pane (e.g., create new task) launch forms that are well-organized, easy to use and consistent in the way they present information. It is easy to forget that this a browser-based application delivered via software-as-a-service.

Team Headquarters Menu

Spend some time exploring and it also becomes evident that a lot of service desk best practices are built into the product. Although not promoted as a prescriptive “ITIL in a box” solution, the capability is there to support the kinds practices that service organizations are usually looking for when they are implementing the ITIL service management framework. Just as an example, service tickets include pre-built work queues that make it easy to keep track of the status of work-in-process with simple visual indicators that show when service level commitments are at risk. The same view shows at a glance which tickets have not been assigned.

THQ Help Desk

The interactive Gantt chart is worth special mention. Launched from a right-click menu once a project is displayed, the project task list presents in a traditional Gantt chart format. Drag or stretch the bars and the task scheduling information updates to show the effects of the changes. Save the changes made by manipulating the chart and they become a permanent update to the planned schedule.

THQ Gantt

An innovation in the way that THQ organizes information is “One Task List”, which attempts to dissolve the distinction between tickets and project assignments for team members. The simple underlying notion is that work is work, it can be assigned to individuals as discrete tasks, and tasks need to be completed by specific dates. By connecting the tasks to higher level plans driven by delivery commitments and service level objectives the Task List becomes a medium for bringing operational and project concerns together instead of setting them up in competition with each other.

Notes and Documents are the main communication tools. Anyone who has worked in a service desk setting should recognize the value of notes on a ticket as a running narrative of what has been done and what needs to happen next. As Problem Management bundles together tickets for recurring problems, notes can also be a rich source of planning information to help determine the scope of projects that can provide lasting improvements in the production infrastructure.

Document management functionality operates in two ways. First, a simple upload provides the ability to attach documents to any ticket, task or project. As well, documents can be uploaded into libraries for creation of a shared knowledge base. A search function gives the ability to search the entire site for keywords and phrases.

Few of us can admit to getting excited about a time sheet but organization who need time control also know that time entry has to be easy to use or people simply won’t do it. The time sheet in THQ is simple and straightforward to use with an entry list that generates automatically from the task list. As well, any work times that have been entered on service tickets will populate into the time sheet automatically.

Limitations that I noticed during evaluation were mostly minor:

  • Internet Explorer as the only supported browser (a trade-off to enable a feature-rich user interface)
  • Opportunities to customize the look and feel of the site are somewhat limited
  • Interface with MS Project is import only

Getting started with THQ is a project in itself. Beyond the free 30-day trial evaluation, implementation involves populating the database with information about the organization (e.g., users, groups, ticket categories), a must do step to get started with any integrated service desk and project management solution. A typical implementation project is 8-12 weeks, which is similar to my own experience in implementing service desk solution sin mid-sized organizations. Entry Software offers a package of training and support services to assist organizations who want to help in configuring the product to suit their own needs.

For more than a decade, Entry Software has been quietly building a solid customer base among mid-sized organizations in health care, transportation and other service industries. They offer a convincing value proposition to organizations that are big enough to need some formal process that brings service and project work together. TeamHeadquarters is positioned to provide the needed structure without the overhead of hosting and integrating separate systems for service desk, project management and time control. With more than 5,000 users in production, it still isn’t quite big enough to be included in the Gartner evaluation of enterprise service desk solutions. That said, the functional footprint goes well beyond many mid-market help desk solutions. At $360 / month for a 10-user license (unlimited tickets and projects), THQ delivers a range of functions that would simply be out of reach for a mid-sized organization if they had to be acquired through separate applications hosed in-house.

Overall Rating
(out of 4 )
Team Collaboration
Transactional
Project Communication
Getting Started  
Customize Look and Feel
Ongoing Cost
Features
Can’t Do It
Custom (Major)
Custom
(Minor)
No Problem
Announcements X
Shared Calendar X
Shared Task List X
Team Discussion X
Assign Project Tasks X
Email Notification X
Syndication X
Progress Reporting X
Track Issues X
Track Risks X
Time Entry X
Track Earned Value X
Multi Projects in 1 site X
Roll-up multi projects X
MS Project Interface X
Word, Excel Interface X

Web 2.0 for Project Management: Basecamp

With over 5 million subscribers world-wide, Basecamp rivals MS Project for most-used project management software. Yet these two tools offer very different capabilities. MS Project has a well-established place in the Project Manager’s tool kit as an aid to managing schedules and budgets. Basecamp focuses on team collaboration. This post takes a closer look at some of the features that have made Basecamp so popular.

Basecamp from 37Signals is part of a suite of software-as-a-service tools for team communication. Aimed primarily at small and mid-sized organizations, this Chicago-based provider sets out to provide “frustration-free web-based apps for collaboration, sharing information, and making decisions.” The other tools in the suite include Highrise for contact management, Campfire for instant messaging and Backpack as an intranet portal.

Open up Basecamp and you will find a site that is inviting, uncluttered, intuitive, and all about communication. To find out how easy it is to use I tried out the free plan (1 project, unlimited users, 2 Writeboards, 10 MB File Storage). The 60-second sign-up took exactly that, and almost immediately I was able to start building a project plan.

The home page presents a dashboard view that gives an at-a-glance summary what’s going on in the projects in your site. Throughout the rest of the site Basecamp focuses on simple, basic ways of doing things. Navigation is very clean with big, easy-to-read tabs at the top of the screen to switch between different types of project information. For example, the “To-Dos” tab shows outstanding To-Do items assigned to me. Click on the “Calendar” tab and the default view shows items that are due within the next 6 weeks.

As a long-time MS Project users, I was curious about how Basecamp handles schedules. What I found  is best described as management by milestones. A milestone can, of course, be anything the team decides it should be. By extension, project activities are the things people do in order to get to a milestone. Rolled out over an entire project, the Gantt chart view from MS Project presents itself in Basecamp as a series of To-Do lists punctuated by milestones.

Basecamp milestone list.

Creating a milestone in Basecamp is easy, and the dialogue enforces the idea that it’s something to be achieved by a particular date and that someone needs to own. Once a milestone has been added to a project, adding activities to the schedule is simply a matter of creating a To-Do list that attaches to the milestone. Each To-do item is them given a due date and assigned to a team member.

Basecamp create milestone

Wiki pages have become a popular way for project teams to collaborate on a document, especially when they don’t have a lot of opportunity for face-to-face meetings. Basecamp offers the “Writeboard”, which is a page equipped with simple text editor where team members can work together on a shared document.

Overall, Basecamp does a good job of providing a simple, lightweight way to enhance many aspects of project communication with a minimum of training and set-up overhead. To some eyes, the emphasis on simple ways of doing things may go a bit too far. Things that someone looking for an “enterprise” solution would probably see as limitations include:

  • Text editor in the write board lacks most of the rich text editing features that we tend to take for granted.

  • Ability to store and organize documents includes the ability to sort them by name and other attributes but only one category tag can be applied to each document. What happens in projects that generates a lot of documents?

  • Time-tracking functionality is very easy to use. But the problem with time-tracking in general is that it’s easy to ignore. Would people actually use it consistently enough to obtain reliable cost data?

  • Cannot make a Gantt chart representation of a project schedule. Projects with complex dependencies could be difficult to set up and control.

  • Data export from the site is in a single XML file. It’s easy to produce but plan on a lot of effort in deciphering the file if you want to do anything with the data.

Cost for subscribing to Basecamp depends on how many projects are in your portfolio. At $49 per month the “Plus” plan gives the capability to create 35 projects and provides 15 GB of file space for an unlimited number of users.

If I had to sum up Basecamp in one phrase it would be “Project Management Light”, and that’s not a bad thing at all. These days a lot of projects get done by small teams of multi-talented people with limited time and little appetite to apply a lot of formal project management process to their work. Teams like that often work on short planning horizons with little need for a robust scheduling tool. Basecamp can help that kind of team work together, communicate effectively and share project management responsibility. Judging from the feedback on Basecamp’s “Customer Wall” they have found a lot of people who agree that Basecamp can deliver a lot of value.

Overall Rating
(out of 4 )
Team Collaboration
Transactional
Project Communication
Getting Started  
Customize Look and Feel
Ongoing Cost
Features
Can’t Do It
Custom (Major)
Custom
(Minor)
No Problem
Announcements X
Shared Calendar X
Shared Task List X
Team Discussion X
Assign Project Tasks X
Email Notification X
Syndication X
Progress Reporting X
Track Issues X
Track Risks X
Time Entry X
Track Earned Value X
Multi Projects in 1 site X
Roll-up multi projects X
MS Project Interface X
Word, Excel Interface X

Web 2.0 for Project Management – OneHub

Imagine this scenario. Your project team is spread out across several organizations. You need a place to put files and share a task list, a calendar and maybe a wiki. Sound familiar? OneHub might be what you’re looking for.

The home page makes a simple, straightforward claim: “Secure, fast and easy-to-use file sharing for any size business. Manage projects, share files and collaborate with others.” Open it up and you will find a site that does just that, no more and no less. In fact it offers most of the basic functionality that a SharePoint project site would have. The big difference is the almost completely effortless setup required to get a secure, customizable workspaces for collaboration and document sharing.

The entry level set-up is free. In about about 5 minutes you can build a virtual workspace with 2 GB of storage and a range of functions that you select from a series of pre-built widgets in the site template provided. Select your own colour scheme, add a logo to dress it up and there it is, ready to use. From the administration dashboard you are now ready to issue email invitations for people to join your Hub (and also set permissions for what they can do when they get there). There is no limit on the number of people who can use a hub.

So how does OneHub stack up in our evaluation? The user interface is easy to read, and intuitive to navigate. The available widgets include the kinds of things you would expect to find in a collaboration workspace:

  • Document Management
  • Task List
  • Calendar
  • Discussions
  • Wiki
  • Activity Tracker

Document management functions are strong with an easy one-click upload function, built-in version control and the ability to organize files into folders.

The task list can be used to assign work to team members, and they will receive email notices when the work is assigned and again when it’s due. Linking the calendar to the task list provides an informal way to do scheduling.

If you want to maintaining an Issue List or a Risk Register as part of your project documentation then you will probably have to do that in a document and upload it to the site. Alternately, you could make use of the Wiki page, which a great place for teams who are spread out to work on a document together.

OneHub was built for collaboration, not for formal, structured communication so it’s not very surprising to see some weaknesses there. For example, the task list enables assignment to a team member but the only progress report available is marking it complete. Ability to track issues and risks is also absent, although either the document management functions, the Comments widget or the Wiki could be adapted for that purpose. Although the task list and calendar provide some basic scheduling capability the ability to do formal schedules (e.g., Gantt charts) is absent. Time reporting is also absent, as is the ability to roll up to a high level view of what’s happening across an entire portfolio of projects. Although it is very easy to upload office documents to a OneHub site, there is no direct integration to any desktop applications.

Cost depends on how many projects are in your portfolio. OneHub offers a variety of price plans to choose from depending on the number of hubs and the amount of file storage space you need. At $99 per month the “Team” plan gives the capability to create 25 workspaces and 25 GB of file space for an unlimited number of users.

Overall OneHub looks like good value and well worth a close look for anyone looking for a way to improve project team communication. Based in Bellevue WA, the company is in its fifth year of operation claiming over 100,000 users for the site and over 700 paying customers. Financing looks respectable for the long haul http://onehub.com/about/news/pr-20091029 . OneHub has all appearances of a “small and steady” kind of company that plans to be around for a while to take care of their customers.

Overall Rating
(out of 4 )
Team Collaboration
Transactional
Project Communication
Getting Started  
Customize Look and Feel
Ongoing Cost
Features
Can’t Do It
Custom (Major)
Custom
(Minor)
No Problem
Announcements X
Shared Calendar X
Shared Task List X
Team Discussion X
Assign Project Tasks X
Email Notification X
Syndication X
Progress Reporting X
Track Issues X
Track Risks X
Time Entry X
Track Earned Value X
Multi Projects in 1 site X
Roll-up multi projects X
MS Project Interface X
Word, Excel Interface X

SharePoint Maturity Model and Project Management

One more word about SharePoint. A wise man once said “a fool with a tool is still a fool”. Changing behaviour is at the heart of any organization’s effort to introduce new tools, and SharePoint is no different than any other technology in that respect. SharePoint is a medium for building a project management information system but there has to be a basic understanding of what good project communication looks like for the effort to do any good.

Recently I came across a presentation by Sadalit Van Buren about her work in documenting a SharePoint Maturity Model. To make a long story short the model provides a way for organizations adopting SharePoint to see where they are in relation to other organizations and some best practices. Intended to guide technology adoption strategy, the framework explores current practices in each of 12 areas of capability and provides as systematic way to assess use of the technology on a 5-step scale  with each step representing a higher level of standardization and optimization:

  • 100 – Initial
  • 200 – Managed
  • 300 – Defined
  • 400 – Predictable
  • 500 – Optimized

So, you may ask, what does this have to with project management? For starters, despite the promise that SharePont offers for improving communication and supporting virtual project teams, people locked in email and file shares can just as easily ignore the shiny new technology as use it. They need to see value in doing something differently. The leadership challenge rests in understanding the  gap between what people are doing and the vision for what they should be doing. If the gap is perceived as too big they might not bother at all without some help and encouragement.

Maturity models like CMM, OPM3, and (now) SPMM help managers understand the gap and set realistic goals for standardization and continuous improvement by providing benchmarks that give insight into  where a group is in their journey to develop competency. Guideposts that aid planning how (and how far) to move forward can go a long way toward successful adoption.

SharePoint for Project Management

So, what happened to 2010. The short version is that I did the research, and it has been an interesting journey. Those who attended last year’s PMI Southwestern Ontario Spring Symposium heard part of the story. The next several posts will tell the rest with each one take an in-depth look at one solution.

Let’s start with SharePoint. It’s showing up in a lot of places and, simply put, it has a lot to offer project teams. SharePoint has a number of attractions, and high on the list is its facility for managing lists. That is useful to project teams because they live in a world of lists — activity lists, issue logs, risk registers and many more. SharePoint also offers lots of built-in components that enable wiki’s, blogs and document management, the more unstructured part of project communication. In short, all of the building blocks for a first rate project information system are there.

There, to be sure, but not always ready to use. SharePoint is a tool kit, not a packaged Project Management Information System. The effort required to get started is not large and the building blocks are there to enable a high level of project team collaboration. For the full story on how to do it, check out the book (and web site) from Dux Raymond Sy, which gives a step-by-step guide to building a working PM information system from WSS (the “free” version of SharePoint that comes with Windows Server). With some work you can expect to build a project team site that will provide:

  • Single Point of Access
  • Role-Based Security
  • Shared Lists
    • Task List
    • Issue Log
    • Risk Register
  • Document Management
    • Charter, Project Plan
    • Team Work Product
    • Built-in Version Control
  • Team Collaboration
    • Announcements
    • Calendar
    • Contacts
    • Discussions
    • Wiki
  • MS Office Integration

If your organization is already making an investment in SharePoint, project collaboration is a great place to get quick value from your investment. You will need to start by spending time with your IT folks in order to understand what the rules of the road are for creating and administering sites in your organization. You will also need to invest some time up-front with configuration and testing before you are ready to use the site in your projects. Once you have a template and you know who is going to be using your site, it only takes a few minutes to expand it to include more projects and they start up. Even if your organization isn’t planning to install SharePoint it may still be an option. Many web hosting services will provide SharePoint hosting based on the WSS platform. About $60 per month should get enough space to host a project information system that will do quite a lot.

On the other hand, there are some caveats. The first is to remember that because SharePoint is a do-it-yourself kit you will have to invest some time and effort getting it to look and behave the way you want it to before you can share it with your project teams. You will also need professional help in order to get beyond the basics. SharePoint makes it very easy to create a new web site for each project but it’s not so easy to get a top-down view of all of the projects in your portfolio. Web parts to do that are available at a relatively modest cost but you will go through some technical hoops in order to install and configure these extra components if you need them. Finally, remember that the integration between SharePoint and MS Office is very good but it does not include MS Project. If you use MS Project now, sharing project information with people who do not have it will continue to be challenging.

Report Card:

SharePoint (WSS 3.0) for Project Management

Overall Rating
(out of 4 )
Team Collaboration
 

Transactional
Project Communication

Getting Started
Customize Look and Feel
Ongoing Cost
Features
Can’t Do It
Custom (Major)
Custom
(Minor)
No Problem
 

Announcements

X
Shared Calendar

X

Shared Task List X
Team Discussion X
Assign Project Tasks X
Email Notification X
Syndication X
Progress Reporting X
Track Issues X
Track Risks X
Time Entry X
Track Earned Value X
Multi Projects in 1 site X
Roll-up multi projects X
MS Project Interface X
Word, Excel Interface X