Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Hubsites – social networks of organizations

Creating neologisms (new words) for internal use can be both helpful and fun – and at Zipipop we have a few in common usage. Making them public, however, can be a bit risky: since you can easily come across as being either pretentious or a bit whacky (neologisms can be associated with some psychotic disorders!). However, sometimes you just cannot find an existing word that sufficiently conveys what you want to communicate and you are forced to invent a new one – hence the word hubsite.

Hubsites should not be confused with the growing term social media hubs; although there are many similarities. But before I try to give a definition I should first provide some background.

We started creating the concept of Hubsites over a year ago because we anticipated that there would be a growing demand for organizations be able to be able to collaborate more effectively with other organizations. The established term extranet comes pretty close to defining what we are calling a hubsite, however, it does not convey how an extranet-type site can be connected into an ever expanding network of other extranets through the use of social media tools and services – thereby transcending the limitations of individual organizational IT infrastructures.

When we first created the initial presentation (see end) we did not know exactly how it could be technically achieved; however, we instinctively knew that the solutions would somehow come through utilizing social media principles and services.

Then last summer, when we joined the Winnovation Network, we were forced to find a way of collaborating effectively with team members in Finland, China, Sweden and Spain. And, after trying Confluence (too clumsy) and looking into Elgg (worthy but needed installing), we ended up primarily using the enterprise microblogging service Yammer; which we found to be the easiest way of instantly improving awareness, making help requests, and sharing information. And this was augmented by Google Sites (fast, easy wiki spaces) and Skype for regular conference calls and one-to-one chats.

This process made us realize that the future of inter-organizational collaboration is not in trying to make customized platforms, but instead mixing up the best of existing social media services to create "collaborative environments".

The principles of the Hubsites Concept are not tied to any particular technology or service (although cloud-based computing is essential to provide common access); but it turned out that the ability of Google Sites to have multiple, shareable "child" sites within the same domain, together with the ability to categorise (label) them around shared "hubs of expertise" or interest, started to make the Hubsites Concept look possible. And then Yammer's new Community Networks capability – where you can invite anyone to join – enhanced the possibilities even further.

So the combination of these two established technologies (Google Sites providing knowledge generation and retrieval tools; Yammer providing awareness and connecting capabilities) now mean that the Hubsites concept can now be made a reality. The challenges are now less about technological implementation, but more about how best to provide sufficient guidance and training to the users to help them adopt new social media-based practices – particularly related to sharing and transparency.

As it transpired the concept was indeed prescient, since in the autumn of last year we started getting many requests from organizations and associations related to how they could improve inter-organizational or cross-project collaboration.

"But collaboration platforms have been around for ages", I hear you say. This is true and there are some very good ones, but how many actually integrate into the everyday workflow of employees? The lack of direct integration has been the downfall of many previous attempts at collaboration and social media integration – since they can be seen as annoying side things they are supposed to use. And how many are flexible, scalable and cheap enough to meet ever changing and growing needs?

It is these challenges that the Hubsite ideas aim to overcome and the exciting thing is that Zipipop has now been commissioned to implement and oversee a very significant trial – based on these ideas – aimed at improving the collaboration of the Finnish OSKE competence clusters.

The trial was commissioned by TEM (the Finnish Ministry of Employment and Economy) and the proposal is based around the use of interconnected Google Sites, Community Yammer networks and Skype tele-conferencing. Zipipop will be conducting user workshops and admin training to try and ensure that the process goes as smoothly as possible. But the really interesting thing will be to see how the users start to use these simple, powerful and flexible tools to create their own innovative solutions to needs we can not even predict.

And do you want to know a little secret – the technology for the trial will cost absolutely nothing*. That's right, I will say it again, we do not have to pay one cent – since Google Premium accounts only kick in when you have more than 50 users (and even then it's only 40 euros per user).

Another time I'll introduce you to another great Zipipop neologism: bobbing : ) In the meantime we hope you like the presentation and any comments are most welcome.

Note: I am aware that there are some relatively old references on the web to hub sites (two words): meaning sites that have lots of out outbound links; however, a hubsite as such is not an established term. And I have seriously been considering hubnet, as a natural progress from intranet, extranet, hubnet; however, there are many random uses of that term on the web and hubsites can potentially be either private or public. Please help me decide which is best in this SURVEY, where you can also suggest an alternative name.

*Providing current pricing models are not changed in the next four months.