ThoughtFarmer, Google Docs make the workplace social

March 2011 - While some would paint the sometimes-daily (okay, hourly) indulgence of checking Facebook at work as a guilty pleasure reserved for office slackers, everyone wants to feel connected, and we don’t always experience that on the job. Feelings of isolation, alienation, and being underutilized at work can lead employees to retreat to thriving personal lives online, often while they’re on the clock.

Believing that social media is a waste of time, some workplaces block social-networking or personal e-mail sites with a firewall. But a growing number of companies have embraced the social side of Web 2.0 and are using it as a tool for increasing collaboration, productivity, and innovation among employees.

OpenRoad Communications is the Vancouver-based web-development company behind ThoughtFarmer, a product that merges the functions of an intranet with the community-minded elements of social media. In November, the company released the fourth version of this social intranet software.

“It brings in that aspect of the individual into the organization,” OpenRoad president Darren Gibbons told the Georgia Straight in the company’s Gastown boardroom.

An intranet is a network that’s accessible only to people within an organization. It provides employees access to company documents, directories, and news. Intranets have their roots in the mid ’90s, but the concept of a social intranet is only about a year old, and ThoughtFarmer was the first piece of social intranet software on the market.

ThoughtFarmer allows employees to work on documents together without the hassle of uploading, e-mailing, and downloading attachments. Version 4.0 features employee profiles that track the contributions of an individual to shared documents, wikis, blogs, and online discussions.

Gibbons said OpenRoad’s own use of ThoughtFarmer has built a sense of community among employees by providing a space for them to learn about each other’s contributions to the company.

“For us, when somebody new comes into the company, they can sit down, they can fire up the intranet, and they can get up to speed with different projects that are going on around the office, see some information about their coworkers—what their strengths are, that type of thing,” Gibbons said. “But they can also go through and look at photos from the Christmas party and that type of stuff too. They can get a feel for a little bit more about the company than they would from just having conversations with an individual.”

ThoughtFarmer can be used to create a valuable workplace resource, archiving contributions of former employees and allowing new ones to get familiar with the company’s policies and social culture. Its wikis, blogs, and social-media components merge the professional and the personal, engaging employees in new ways.

“There are some companies out there that are completely against these kinds of social-engagement tools because they feel like their employees are just going to slack off inside their business,” Gibbons said. “To be honest, we don’t hear from them, because if that’s the kind of attitude they have, they wouldn’t pick up the phone or send us an e-mail in the first place. I think we make it pretty clear. We are kind of biased more towards open sharing inside organizations, and even that kind of scares a lot of people.”

Current ThoughtFarmer clients include Mountain Equipment Co-op and eHarmony—companies with hundreds of employees.

For smaller organizations, Gibbons sees Google Docs as a tool that can achieve similar goals of collaboration and lightweight document management. Like ThoughtFarmer, Google Docs launched in 2006.

The collaborative abilities of Google Docs have changed the culture of work for those who use it, according to Jonathan Rochelle, director of product management for Google Docs and Google Sites.

“It’s a really obvious but hard-to-describe effect. It’s only obvious once you start using it,” he said, reached via a Gmail phone call at home in New Jersey. “I think people have higher expectations for collaboration.”

Rochelle added that Google Sites, a free wiki- and website-building toolkit, more closely resembles ThoughtFarmer than Google Docs does. But he shares Gibbons’s view that Google Docs complements social intranet software like ThoughtFarmer.

“It brings together a level of communication and collaboration into sort of a seamless flow,” he said. “I think the most important characteristic or behaviour that comes out of it is immediacy, speed.”

Widespread use of Google Docs and other collaborative document-management systems will also change how we use e-mail, according to Rochelle. “The idea of sending data as attachments will disappear,” he said. “You’ll see the content of messages start looking shorter and to the point, and you can look back at the stream and see more of a workflow, rather than big attachments.”

In Vancouver, Toby Ward sees social intranets, still in their infancy, evolving alongside increasingly Web 2.0–friendly workplaces. The founder of Prescient Digital Media, a Toronto-based intranet-consulting firm, Ward credits himself with defining the term “social intranet” about a year ago.

“The workplace is becoming a more two-way, synchronous, collaborative environment as a result of social media and the emerging social intranet,” he said over coffee in the Bentall Centre.

Ward likens what he calls “Luddite fears” around employee use of social media at work to apprehension about the presence of telephones on workers’ desks in the 1960s and early ’70s.

“These fears will always be present in any advance we make in technology, and social media is no different,” Ward said. “If you’re under 40 now, we’re all using social media, all of us. So if you’re banning social media from employees, what are you saying to your potential workforce? There’s a big talent crunch coming. The baby boomers are retiring, and the next wave of managers are in their 20s and early 30s now, and they use social media hourly.

“I would never work for a company that bans it because that’s a dinosaur that’s dying a slow death,” he added. “They’re not embracing the future.”

Originally published on

Article by Jackie Wong

About Prescient

Prescient Digital Media...We assess, plan, design and build world-class intranets and digital workplaces. We are recognized, world-class leaders and experts in intranets, and have been for more than 15 years, having worked with dozens of Fortune 500 and big brand lead


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