Thursday, October 02, 2008

Intranets, Yammer, and Other Web 2.0 Tools for Staff Communication

What's the most immediately useful application of Web 2.0 tools to your museum? It probably isn't new forms of visitor engagement (no matter how much I write about those relationships). So many museums suffer from departmental siloing, deluges of all-staff emails, the painful jujitsu required to collate seven versions of the same document... the list goes on. And while defining new relationships with visitors may be a complex institutional process requiring buy-in on many levels, there's no reason not to move quickly and confidently to improve the ways that staff communicate inside your institution.

Here are seven frequent staff communication problems, and tools to address them. They all involve tearing down silos, removing gatekeepers, and making it easy to get the information you want when you want it. Oh, and they're mostly all free.

1. Is your staff directory perpetually out-of-date?

Create a shared Google spreadsheet that lives on the Web and can be updated by everyone. This way, each new staff person can enter her own name, email, phone, etc., and change things as needed. You can even create a handy form to send out so people don't have to edit the spreadsheet itself. The document will always available in its most recent version on the Web, and you can easily add new fields as needed by your institution. Here's an example that took me 3 minutes to create: fill out this form to be added to our imaginary directory!

2. Do you have no idea what's going on beyond your department or team except when an annoying all-staff email announces locker cleanup this Friday?

Set up Yammer to host an internal, private free Twitter feed for your institution. Yammer works like Twitter--people send out short messages that anyone can read or follow. You can receive the messages on the Web, on your desktop, on your phone, or in an instant messaging client. The difference is that all of the messages are internal to your institution. This means a quick way to:
  • let staff know about fundraising successes
  • share funny visitor stories from the floor
  • make staff aware of a big group, program, or event in the museum
  • tell people there are cupcakes in the break room
  • update folks on new media hits
  • let staff know that an important donor is coming into the offices
Right now, most museums share this information via all-staff emails (or not at all when it comes to the quick stories that give the pulse of the institution). By using a service like Yammer, people don't have to read and delete emails clogging their inbox--they can let the messages they don't care about go by, and hone in on the ones that really interest them.

You don't need everyone to sign up to start using Yammer--you can start with a small team or a few interested staff members. The more people use it, the more diversity of information from across the institution you'll start sharing on a daily basis. Not only can it reduce the all-staff email frustration, it can give you a pulse on what's happening in every area of your institution.

3. Do you need a way to report, document, and share day-to-day information on a project or within your department?

Many museum teams don't see each other in person every day. This is true for operations teams, which often include part-time staff who don't intersect, as well as for development teams, which often involve outside contractors or remote staff. Some operations teams use a log book to keep staff updated on the activities of the previous day, but too many rely on word-of-mouth and lose the opportunity to document institutional history and convey knowledge from staff member to staff member.

Internal team blogs can ameliorate these gaps in interaction by providing a group-authored space where staff can share everything from daily log reports to research thoughts. You can set up a free blog via Blogger (my preferred platform) and set it to private, identifying a key set of people who are allowed to author and read posts. You will effectively have a departmental journal of work going on, discoveries made, major events that deserve to be discussed and memorialized. And since people can subscribe to blogs via RSS, staff can select the departments they want to follow "on-demand" without getting bogged down by lots of all-staff emails.

4. Do you need a way to do research and brainstorm collaboratively with your team?

Whereas blogs are a good reporting mechanism, wikis are a better collaborative tool. An internal, shared group wiki will allow you to explore different topics (i.e. create new pages for new areas of interest), refine mission statements, and aggregate research resources in a central area. I like as a free, no-ad, easy to use tool, and have been using it with many clients to keep notes from meetings, organize information, and share resources. Most wiki systems also allow you to easily attach documents. A good wiki can easily become the homebase for creative group work.

5. Do you need a way to share links, images, and videos besides emailing them around?

You can create lists of links on wikis and blogs, but there are also tools that allow you to connect directly to other staff members while you are in the process of discovering and bookmarking items across the Web. Delicious is an online bookmarking system that makes it easy for you to "tag" websites of interest and save them on a single webpage. By sharing your bookmarks with other staff members, you can create targeted link lists for a variety of projects. For example, here's my Delicious page. You can see my network--the people who I'm connected with. We can surf each others' bookmarks, and if we choose a shared tag for a project, then anyone can search Delicious for that tag and see all bookmarks related to that project.

You can do similar things on Flickr and YouTube to share images and videos of interest. I "friend" people I'm working with, and our cumulative "favorites" on these sites become useful resources for image and video reference.

6. Do you need a way to author and revise documents with others?

Many people use Google Docs for this, though I find the interface a bit confusing. I prefer to use wikis to create group-authored documents. All of the text is available directly on the wiki page (no attachments to save or links to click on), easy to edit, and every revision is automatically saved. You can even subscribe to the recent changes and get them sent directly to your email inbox or to a feed reader like Google Reader. Here's a sample document that you can add to and change to get the feel for wiki editing, this time using a wiki service called WetPaint. (I chose WetPaint instead of my favorite wiki provider,, because WetPaint allows non-registered users to edit pages.)

7. Do you need a way to put all of these activities in one place?

You may look at all of the above suggestions and think, "Oy. She wants me to sign up for blogs, wikis, yammer... this is way too many different tools to learn! How will I keep track of them all?"

There are two ways to organize all these kinds of Web 2.0 communication: you can do it for free by creating a custom homepage, or you can pay someone else to aggregate it in something like an intranet.

First, two ways to do it yourself:
  1. For all staff: create a wiki that just features links to each of the different services you are using. You can easily edit it to add new blogs, shared documents, or other wikis that different teams are using. The wiki becomes both a record of all internal social media work and an easy place from which to access it. If you are really tech-competent, you can download the open-source version of Mindtouch (makers of to create your own custom community site.
  2. For yourself: create a Google homepage that has individual links to the different wikis and shared documents in use. You can embed a Google Reader into your homepage and enter all of the addresses for blogs and wiki updates into that reader to create an aggregate feed of posts and changes across all your internal sites.
Paying someone else to create an intranet--a webspace that provides all of the functions listed above (directory, wikis, blogs, updates)--can be very useful IF you are ready to make these new communication systems institution-wide requirements. Web 2.0-enabled intranets are fabulous because they don't require an administrative gate-keeper, but if no one uses them, they're not worth the money. If you're not sure you need an intranet, I recommend starting with some experimental, small projects and see how things go. If you get critical mass and want a more integrated system, you can spring for the intranet.

Here are three robust intranet solutions to consider:
  1. ThoughtFarmer. This is my favorite "wiki-inspired" intranet solution, which provides dynamic, integrated staff directory, departmental wikis, and individual blogs, all connected in an attractive and simple to use interface. ThoughtFarmer costs $109/user (20% discount for non-profits, about $5000/year for updates) and requires a minimum of 100 users. ThoughtFarmer is the best option if you are a large institution with an interest in collaborative documentation, creative work, and messaging.
  2. SocialText, like ThoughtFarmer, is a wiki-based collaborative internal workspace. The pricing is comparable ($5000 minimum startup), though there is a small business version for $10/user/month. SocialText is more customizable than ThoughtFarmer but lacks some of the more attractive user interface elements of ThoughtFarmer. SocialText is best for highly tech-literate folks who want to customize their own experience.
  3. Google Apps. Google Apps provides more standard enterprise needs, like email, calendar, and instant messaging, and fewer Web 2.0 applications (Google Docs and Google sites). This is a good solution if you are looking for a new email and calendar server, but may not be perfect if you really want dynamic shared spaces.While you can use Google Apps for free, to have a version with no ads and good backup systems you'll pay $50 per user per year.

Remember, you don't have to do all of this at once. But if even just one of these seven problems is something that has you banging your head against the ticket counter every day, consider trying one of these suggestions. It will change your workflow--reducing your reliance on email, allowing you to get and receive on-demand information--and it will require you to be more proactive about "following" activities across the institution. The benefit is more flexible, varied content from across the museum, and smarter collaboration with team members. Fewer headaches guaranteed.

What tools do you use to make your collaborative work easier?

7 comments, add yours!:

Vincent said...

Great post. I hadn't heard of Yammer so I'll check that out thanks.

Another one for keeping all these web2.0 tools together is FriendFeed:

Here is mine as an example:


Unknown said...

Coincidentally we were discussing this issue yesterday.

Our first step away from email and a shared drive is to use Google Sites for a project.

So far the obvious benefit is being able to see who updated or added what.

If it works out I’ll have see what else we can do, and your post will be a great source of resources!


Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Nina Simon said...

FYI on intranets:
Seb Chan from the Powerhouse Museum sent me a note today to say that they are using Atlassian's Confluence to revamp their intranet. It looks like a good option ala ThoughtFarmer and SocialText, with comparable pricing structures and a hosted option.

das said...

'Future of Media' analyst and enterprise strategist Ross Dawson participated in a 'Future Directions' forum at the Powerhouse today and he has blogged his notes and ideas over on his blog. (The Future Directions forum is a series of meetings this week and next at the Museum at which invited guests discuss possible future directions for the Powerhouse which is now 20 years old - in its current location).Everyone is discussing the future of museums right now and the voices that come from outside the sector are quite possibly the most important to listen to.


Anonymous said...

We just started experimenting with Yammer last week at COSI among the strategy, development, and marketing teams. While at ASTC, I was keeping up with my coworkers in Columbus wonderfully (including our supervisor who was serving jury duty!). The tricky part will be collectively developing some sort of standards for our tags and such as more users join and it becomes unmanageable to receive all posts. I think the fact they offer an Adobe AIR desktop application makes it much easier to use in a real corporate environment.

Anneh said...

I agree that blogs are a great communication tool. We did what you suggested: created a Blogger blog with a private setting. The result: no one uses it. I think it is because they have to log in, and the RSS can't read a password-protected blog. While I love the idea of a staff blog, a private one didn't work in our division.

Anneh Fletcher
Canadian Museum of Civilization

Nina Simon said...

Anneh-great point. Private blogs have tradeoffs--they are probably only useful if people have them as part of a homepage or similar.