How To Create an Open Source Collaboration Environment

No matter how big or small your business, having a digital and remotely-accessible collaboration space can significantly enhance your organsiation's knowledge management capabilities. Whether for production, sales, marketing or any other division of business, maintaining such a shared communication channel allows for improved, efficient and effective execution of processes while enhancing the potential for innovative thinking.

Moreover, in contrast to traditional compartmentalised/siloed organisational structures, it's important to recognise that all personnel, no matter their rank or role, can be potentially valuable assets in providing information or knowledge input and can also benefit from its synthesised output.

Creating a collaboration space is of course no guarantee that your personnel will indeed collaborate, but it's a critical first step in moving towards that goal. Good collaboration software should provide an intuitive interface where users don't have to spend many hours either learning or being trained to find out which button does what. When I mention intuitive, I should stress intuitive from the end-user's standpoint and not the Chief Information Officer or software developer (as happens all too often!). In any case a good Chief Information Officer or Chief Knowledge Officer should track and have excellent insight into how company personnel are using knowledge, information and data.

A further point to consider when selecting from the dozens of possible digital collaboration spaces, is durability. Given the speed at which the technology industry develops, will the vendor still be providing support and updates (security or otherwise) in the short to medium term? Will it even still be in business? If you have spent valuable time deploying collaboration software, it becomes highly inconvenient to migrate your users onto another platform. In addition, unless you select a platform that allows for the easy export and migration of data (which you certainly should do!), there lies the risk that you end up losing all of your data, essentially wiping out a key knowledge asset in your company.

While there are several dozen closed source collaboration applications - everything else being equal - my preference is to settle on an open source solution that has the support of a large community of users. With such open source applications you have the benefits of not being locked into a vendor's product and likely having much quicker bug-fixing, detection of security flaws and the option for further customisation. Depending on ease of use, there is also of course the added benefit of cost savings.

For this reason I would like to go over the relatively simple steps that you can take in creating an open source private collaboration space for your company. While there are a number of other open source collaboration applications that you can choose to implement, in this example I will be looking at the use of WordPress and BuddyPress.

The first thing that you will need of course is a registered domain that can support WordPress installations. I won't be going through the minutiae of installing WordPress here as the WordPress Codex already goes into sufficient depth for that. What you will have to do though is to create a multisite network. This is simple to do for a new installation but requires some added considerations when migrating from a single site version. If you are adapting an existing installation, make sure to back everything up (including your database table and content)!

Assuming that you now have a successful multisite installation of WordPress, you will need to create a new private blog within this network and install the BuddyPress add-on through the plugins menu. BuddyPress is a fantastic application which allows you to essentially create an entire social network of your own (public or private). With hundreds of its own plugins such as BuddyPress Docs and the ability to build groups, manage projects and follow users (similar to Twitter), you have an ideal environment for collaborating and creating internal communities.

While BuddyPress has a number of its own approved themes, using your own theme will usually mean having to tweak some of the design code. Therefore, for the sake of simplicity and to start off with I recommend simply selecting one of their own templates.

With all of that done, you now have an excellent open source collaboration environment which most people should find easy to use and understand. Like any other collaboration space though, don't expect people to start using it on their own without first providing some guidance and support. For successful organisation-wide adoption of collaboration spaces you might not need a PhD in psychology, but you certainly need to understand the how and why of users' thought processes.

Photo: Daniel Johnson, Jr.

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