One way or the other, most of the major work of organisations is done through projects thus making project management a key competence of every effective organisation. Similarly projects get done through project members performing the various tasks that make part of their job (some which may be part of normal operations)
The main model for using IT by most organisations tends to be a host of locally installed applications on the users desktops to do things like word processing, project management, spreadsheets and personal efficiency etc. This model although it seems to be working is fraught with a lot of risk … ask the non-technical employee the pain of having their laptop crash:
- They loose access to their organized mail within the mail clients (especially since the vast majority of users tend to use POP rather than IMAP for mail access.
- All documents they created for the organization get lost especially seeing how ‘good’ we are at backing up on a regular basis.
- If employees are using Outlook or some variant to manage their addresses, tasks and todos … then a lost.
All of the above typically have the following consequences:
- The organisation either doesn’t have an ‘organisational memory’ (i.e. a way for someone else to make use of a fact known by another person). This is particularly true when internal communication is not effective ( … like the US intelligence community having all information required to have seen the X-mas day attach coming). What results is islands of memory, typically stuck in different employees’ heads and typically not available to the rest. The matter gets worse if that information is in an email or document which is typically not available if the person is sick or away or has left the organisation.
- The organisation is exposed high risk in the event that an employee’s computer crashes. Without a proper backup solution in place that is rigorously followed (which is rarely the case, even amongst us IT professionals who KNOW better). If the employees have to backup to USB drives or CDs on their own, there is no telling what sensitive information will be conveyed via those media into hands/eyes that have no business seeing it.
My proposed solution? Enterprise software hosted on servers on the organisation’s network that users can use through a web browser. Call it private ‘Cloud Computing’. And of course you should see this coming … there a really excellent Free and Open Source solutions out there besides other terrific proprietary and commercial alternatives. So what are the advantages of this model?
- Financial Savings: Employees don’t need fat applications installed on their computers, just a web browser. The licensing fees associated with those applications become a cost saving. Even if the applications are free, the support costs per user are also eliminated because the applications is hosted on a server. Furthermore, as we eliminate the need for applications installed on the employees’ computer and most/all the work gets done in a web browser, organisations can further reduce their IT expenditure by moving to Linux on the desktop.
- Reduced Risk: When work is done inside a browser, on the organisation’s servers AND the data is stored on those servers, backup can be automated and be regular. It can also be more appropriately secured.
- Employee and Organisational Effectiveness: Should an employee’s computer crash, instead of waiting perhaps a 3 days for it to be repaired and her data restored, she can pick just about any computer with a browser and continue work from where they stopped … no downtime for the organisation, no frustrations to the employee.
- Organisational Memory: Together with established, explicit and well documented processes, I believe “organisational memory” is one of the pillars of operational effectiveness. The specific tool here is the wiki ….a unified place to document processes and projects, collaborate as well as store all ‘living’ documents about organisational standards and procedures. Putting a wiki in place creates the infrastructure for organisational memory (which is otherwise non-existend), making use of that memory is quite another matter.
So, what are some of the FOSS enterprise applications I think organisations could leverage? eGroupware is like a Swiss Army knife … comprising of a host of different applications from calendering, resource, task, knowledge and project management, as well as pop/imap mail within a browser, a wiki, polls and a website application. As is often the case one size doesn’t fit all and some of the applications in eGroupware are great while others are terrible (Site Manager and the Wiki).
If you choose not to go take the one-size fits all approach, here are some great solutions I have come across.
- Collabtive/ProjectPier: For enterprise general (as opposed to specific such as software) project management, there are lots of applications in the FOSS community. ProjectPier is quite mature and simple while Collabtive is new, very innovative and seems to have the spotlight at the moment with a very beautiful AJAX interface.
- Tracks: Without doubt, the acknowledged best methodology for personal productivity management in the world is David Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done as laid out in a book of the same name). While GTD is NOT about technology but about methodolody, it helps a lot to have a great application to help with the methodology … current PIMs like Outlook fall short. How about one that can be put on a server with accounts for each employee? …. Tracks is IT.
- Mediawiki: What can I say that the success of Wikipedia (the fourth largest brand in the world) can’t demonstrate better? How about the company’s very own implementation of that? … this is the infrastructure for organisational memory.
- Etherpad: While Wiki’s are good for asynchronous collaboration, sometimes what we need is really realtime collaboration. As an example, 3 people could sit at their computers and simultaneously write different parts of an article to the same document! (the review and correct it)…complete with version control. That’s the brilliance of Etherpad.
Just a word of caution … “If you are going to put all of your eggs in one basket (ie all your apps and data in the server room) … by all means try to get a titanium basket lined with air-cushions”. I’d hate to imagine the pain should that basket break or if some vermin gets into it.
Needed to make all this work for good and not just be technological tyranny and confusion is a CIO who actually ‘gets it’, one who continuously explores ways of integrating these technologies into the work processes of the organisation and provides employee training and on-going support especially to the non-technical employees. And it goes without saying that we also need employees who are willing to continuously explore more effective ways of doing their work. Now, how about that? Please I’ll be glad if you share your experiences so we can all learn from them and contribute to making them better.