Thomas Vander Wal – Open Source Tools as First Step

Open Source Tools as First Step

One thing that I have seen across the years, not only at Enterprise 2.0 but prior, is that many organizations start their social tool endeavors with open source tools. While I am a big proponent of open source tools, one has to be mindful of the disadvantages as well as the advantages (just like every other tool). Open source tools are a good first step to see how tools could be used in an organization, but many of the tools need extensive customization to scale and to meet the the user experience and social needs of those who are not an organization’s early adopters.

In my presentation last year “After Noah…” most of the downsides and lessons learned came from people deploying Scuttle as their social bookmarking tool. Scuttle is a decent tool for small deployments in-house that do not need to scale, but the management of the tools and the lack of intelligence in Scuttle that is needed to deliver solid knowledge and understanding around the organization are not in it. There are many elements in Scuttle that limit adoption, unless in a very tech savvy environment, and require moving to a real social bookmarking and tagging solution after six month or a year. Not only is adoption hindered, but easily surfacing information, knowledge, and intelligence captured in the tool is really difficult. Scuttle lacks the algorithms, social understanding, contextual engine, and user experience to be a long term (more than one year) solution for anything more than a small division.

The other open source tool that is widely deployed and equally as problematic as Scuttle is MediaWiki. I continually see MediaWiki deployed because it is “what is under Wikipedia”. While that is well and good to get started, MediaWiki falls into the same problems as Scuttle with adoption, scale, lack of the essentials, and missing intelligence engines. MediaWiki requires heavy modifications to work around these problems. One of the problems that is most problematic are those around human social interactions, which nearly every organization I talk with lacks in their resources as they development and design teams that build, implement, and incrementally improve their products.

Both of these tool types (social bookmarking and wikis) have great commercial products that provide much better overall adoption opportunities as well as have full-time staff who understand what is needed to get the most value out of what is contributed and how to include the difficult pieces around sociality, which greatly increase adoption and long term use.

I thought the section above from Thomas Vander Wal’s post about his Enterprise 2.0 Conference experience this year was worth quoting in full to give you the context. I’ve had the same experience with MediaWiki and rather than it being a criticism, I see it more as a matter of fact about the kinds of social collaboration patterns that MediaWiki is designed to support. In fact, on the MediaWiki Website they even point out in strong terms that:

If you need per-page or partial page access restrictions, you are advised to install an appropriate content management package. MediaWiki was not written to provide per-page access restrictions, and almost all hacks or patches promising to add them will likely have flaws somewhere, which could lead to exposure of confidential data. We are not responsible for anything being leaked, leading to loss of funds or one’s job.

However, I wouldn’t make this an argument about commercial versus open source either. Its really about total cost of ownership, weighed up against what kind of enterprise social computing environment you are trying to create.

BTW Hat tip to Stewart Mader.