gtalk1

skype1

CGIAR staff frequently use online tools to communicate with colleagues and partners around the globe. Many of these tools have made a significant, positive impact on the way staff work by facilitating communication and information sharing.

Until recently, some CGIAR Centers used Microsoft’s Live Communications Server (LCS) version 2005, an internal instant messaging (IM) system that integrates other IM applications (MSN, AOL and Yahoo) using a single client. LCS wasn’t deployed widely in the CGIAR mainly because the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) conversations between Centers didn’t work properly. This was due to the different security levels and network environments across Centers, as well as some limitations with LCS itself.  In addition, the implementation of LCS incurred monthly costs for server maintenance and per-user licensing charges.

Consequently, the decision has been made to remove LCS from the CGIAR’s portfolio of services come September 2009 and explore alternatives.

As the Technical Coordinator of the ICT-KM program, I’ve been working with a group of CGIAR IT managers over the past few months to research possible cost-effective alternatives to replace LCS.  The objective is to find a tool (or set of tools) that:

  • doesn’t incur high licensing and server maintenance costs
  • has a user management that can be integrated with CGIAR Active Directory, which presently has over 8500 users
  • allows users to make calls to landlines and mobile phones at low rates given the high cost of communications between Centers and with CGIAR partners and to a much lesser extent within Centers

With these requirements in mind, we started exploring GTalk and Skype, both of which are applications in the cloud.

While a system-wide decision is yet to be made, I would like to share the information I’ve collected so far about these tools and present a comparison table.

Google Talk (GTalk) gtalk1

In mid 2008, the CGIAR tried out Google Apps as a suite of collaboration tools. The ICT-KM Program gathered the feedback from users and published it in the CGIAR Google Apps Case Study Report. Then, in January 2009, it was decided to implement Google Apps Education edition to replace the CGXchange BEA Aqualogics infrastructure and take advantage of the collaboration tools in the Google Apps package:  Docs, Sites, Calendar, Google Talk, etc.

GTalk Downloadble Client

GTalk Downloadble Client

Google Talk is a free web-based application for instant messaging and voice over internet protocol (VOIP), offered by Google Inc.

Instant messaging between the Google Talk servers and its clients uses an open protocol, XMPP, allowing users of other XMPP clients to communicate with Google Talk users.

GoogleTalk allows users to sync their “screenname,” so to speak, with their e-mail account so they are alerted when they receive new mail, thereby eliminating the need to frequently check their accounts.   email_alerts
The first beta version of the program was released on 24 August 2005. At first, it was only possible to use Google Talk via the Gmail interface, but now users can download  a program to keep in touch with contacts and that’s available for Windows systems only.
Although the Google Talk program has room for further improvement, it allows for a bit of flexibility that other IM programs don’t. For example, most other lite or express IM versions require the use of JavaScript and other scripts to run from the web.

One of the advantages of Google Talk is that you can access it either through your personal Gmail account or your Google Apps account (if you are in the CGIAR), making it easier to keep in touch with contacts.
GTalk in the mail page

It also works with any operating system through the web, whereas some other popular programs do not always allow users to sign in over the web depending on the type of computer and Internet connection used.

Google Talk also allows the Google Talk Gadget to be added to personal website or blogs simply by pasting some code in the site’s HTML.

Google Talk also allows the Google Talk Gadget to be added to personal website or blogs simply by pasting some code in the site’s HTML.
In summary, you can use Google Talk through the downloadable client, Gmail or the Google Talk Gadget. Please note that the features in these three approaches are not the same and this may create confusion. As such, it would be useful if Google could incorporate the same features in all the options they offer.

For more information about Google Talk, click here.

Skype

skype1, another popular VoIP software with IM functionality, is already more widely used than Google Talk in the CGIAR. Skype, which has been owned by eBay since 2005, is free to download and has more than 443 million users around the world as of March 2009  (according to EBay).

One of the main differences between Google Talk and Skype is that the latter allows users to make free PC-to-PC calls as well as low-cost long-distance or international phone calls to landlines and mobile phones over the Internet.

Skype uses a peer-to-peer protocol and offers voicemail, chat, videoconferencing and an expanding array of additional services. Skype is not a replacement for ordinary telephones and cannot be used for emergency calling.

Source: Skype

Source: Skype

While Skype was originally intended for personal communications, the service also offers significant appeal as a low-cost, long-distance service for businesses, particularly for companies that need to communicate internationally.

There are some 3rd-party Skype solutions for business such as  Skip2PBX and VoSky Exchange to name a few that offer the possibility of integrating Skype with their PBX systems. However, Skype has begun testing a connection to corporate VoIP systems (Skype For SIP for Business Users), something that enterprises have been asking for years and which is currently undergoing beta testing.

Although Skype is a great tool for making competitively priced calls to landlines and mobile phones, I feel it needs to improve its online presence indicator – sometimes, online users are shown as being offline when their status if set to online. I’ve also received some instant messages several days after they were sent. In short, the IM feature is not always so ‘instant’ after all.

For more information about Skype, click here

Comparison between Google Talk and Skype

See the Google Talk and Skype comparison table

Conclusions

In my opinion, Google Talk is more enterprise-oriented than Skype, has a good level of security, requires less bandwidth, collaborative features that work well with the implementation of Google Applications Education Edition (CGX 2.0), and integrates with our Active Directory through third-party tools, to name just a few advantages.

Skype, on the other hand, is an application with many interesting features that Google Talk doesn’t have at the moment, such as the ability to establish a conference call with up to five people at a time and the ability to make phone calls to mobiles and landlines worldwide at low rates. However, this software requires more bandwidth than Google Talk and it is blocked in some CGIAR Centers as a result.

In summary, there is no single tool that does it all. At the moment I use Google Talk mostly for work-related purposes since it’s directly linked with the Google Apps CGX 2.0 collaboration workspace and with external partners or friends that have Gmail accounts.

I mostly use Skype for personal communications or when I need to make international phone calls or send a text message.  I hope Google introduces a feature that will allow users to make phone calls to landlines and mobile phones at low-rates with Google Talk. Google is working on  Google Voice, the next version of Grand Central (presently in private beta), which will allow users to make international calls, conference calls and send text messages. However, it’s not known if Google Voice will be integrated with Google Talk. If that were to happen, we would have a real killer application at our disposal.

Keep a look out for the full report on the ‘Selection of a communication tool in the CGIAR’ – to be published soon!

Until the next time, the question still begs: GTalk, Skype or both?

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Lately, we’ve been receiving many requests from people who would like to write documents collaboratively.

This is not the first time we write about this topic: Meena published a general overview of collaborative writing approaches, and Silvia Renn shared tips on writing proposals with Google Docs.

Having been involved in the Google Apps Case Study and currently in CGXchange 2.0, I’d like to share my experience with Google Docs and Google Sites since I’ve found these tools are helping me and the ICT-KM team improve the way we work.  In particular, I’m sharing tips for organizing comments and edits so that every collaborator feels comfortable with the tools and the collaborative writing process.

Enjoy and share your experience and feedback!

(more…)

I always enjoy reminiscing about the way things were before the advent of the mobile phone or the Internet or thumb-size music machines… and I usually think to myself, in a corny fashion: Isn’t technology amazing?

Now, if you’ve been collaborating with colleagues (whether in your office or across different time zones) on reports, projects, events and meetings, you’re probably aware of the frustrations involved. One immediately springs to mind: email exchanges that involve logistics, participant lists, activities and, most annoying of all, documents that appear in various draft stages from different senders – it’s enough to confuse anyone.

On that note, I have to say that collaborative writing has evolved in ways that have left me in awe. When you need to work with several people to produce written documents, such as agendas, reports and proposals, emails are the least productive way to go.

Granted, the humble email has done a lot for collaboration between people in different locations, but there are now more effective online tools that can help you with collaborative writing in the research arena. Not only do these tools enhance your writing experience within the group, but they also reduce the ridiculous number of emails that make it hard for you to retrieve the correctly revised versions of documents from your In-box.

While collaborative writing can make us more efficient and effective, several issues need to be addressed: the imbalance in contributing to content, the lack of interest, the subtle hierarchies which hinder real collaboration, and also the difficulty in relinquishing autonomy or control over the written word.

So be warned, we are now moving into a truly ‘democratic’ zone of collaboration. Ready to let go of the control panel? Read on!

Tools for collaborative writing

Wikis: the word originates from Hawaii – ‘wiki wiki’ means quick. Wikis let you create your collaboration environment online very ‘quickly’. What this means is that you can actually create your own wiki site, place your content on it and allow access to any number of people to see, add to or edit it in almost ‘real-time’. A history of revisions is maintained online, so you can check back on earlier versions.

Ideally, a team member can add to or edit an existing draft, with equal measure. The focus is on content and not the person who contributes. So your team will need to comprise people who are willing to contribute to the content subject, who enjoy the stimulus of sharing thought processes collaboratively and who also do not feel too much pressure from having their colleagues edit them. So, wikis may not suit everyone.

It would also be wise to have an editor or person-in-charge to maintain and update the site – this is called wiki gardening, for obvious reasons. Pages will need to be linked, content may need to be removed if not relevant anymore and indexes will need to be created.

When to use wikis
Wikis are worth using when you want to build a body of knowledge online, such as a handbook, a toolkit, raw data sets, even a book chapter, but with collaboration from others. The most obvious example is Wikipedia, a web-based encyclopedia that lets just about anyone with access to the Internet add or edit content. However, there are many uses for wikis. Check out the KS Toolkit page on wikis and see for yourself!

Wikis are also excellent for planning events and documenting meetings. Once you have your team members in mind, you can create a wiki site and allow access to them. Being a collaborative tool, a wiki site lets you and your team prepare agendas, activity lists, proposals and reports collaboratively. Whatever the content, new pages can be created by anyone in your team and linked, ensuring that all documents are found in one site.

How to get started with wikis: there is a wealth of wiki tools, go to wikimatrix.org to find the one for you.

Examples

Google Sites: originally based on wiki technology, Google Sites has shortcuts and improvements that include website management features.

Taking the wiki a step further, Sites lets us choose from different page types, such as a list, a file cabinet, a dashboard, announcements. Google documents, spreadsheets and presentations – as well as videos, maps, calendars and all the goodies you can build with Google Apps and services, all of which can be easily embedded into a Google Site. Collaborators can add comments and attachments. A site map is automatically created. And voilà! You have a ‘website’ for your collaborative writing.

When to use Google Sites
Google Sites is perfect for all non-techies out there who need an online collaborative environment to write, share and collect different types of information in one place, while maintaining a semblance of order.

Examples of public sites on CGXchange 2.0 (Google Apps for the CGIAR)

Google Docs: well, you’re probably wondering what took me so long to get to this, and chances are that you may already have tried this tool out.

In case you haven’t, Google Docs lets you and your team collaborate using text documents, spreadsheets and presentations online. While it is similar to wikis and Google Sites, Google Docs is used for collaboration on one specific piece of content at a time. This content can then be exported and used in blogs, reports, proposals, etc.

When to use Google Docs
Google Docs is best used when you have one document requiring input from others. You simply prepare the document and invite collaborators (anyone with a Google account). Any revisions made will be kept online, so nothing gets lost. In addition, spreadsheet documents allow real-time discussion between collaborators, thanks to a built-in chat room.

Don’t expect the formatting power of Word or PowerPoint, or the computing power of Excel. The point is … this is not the point! The formatting is so basic that Google Docs just lets you focus on what you want to write, and helps you collect and refine the collaborators’ contributions. Then, when everything has been finalized, you can export the content or copy/paste it into the final destination format.

Examples
Docs are usually not public (with exceptions). Here, on the ICT-KM Program blog, the Social Media Tools Series posts are developed in Google Docs: Meena writes, Antonella contributes, and Mary edits. When the content is final (and it is in HTML from the start, which helps a lot), it is pasted and given final formatting in WordPress. Another great example is Silvia Renn’s post on Using Google Docs for Proposal Writing.

How to get started with Google Sites and Docs: all you need is an account with Google (i.e. sign up for Gmail): these tools are available to Google account holders.  CGIAR Staff can get started  by requesting an account at CGXchange 2.0, where they will find a fully managed set of collaboration tools included in Google Apps.

etherpadEtherpad: Taking the term ‘real-time’ literally, this is probably the next step in collaborative writing. It’s a kind of wiki but easier to use and can accommodate up to 8 participants typing at the same time. While changes are updated every 15 seconds on Google Docs, Etherpad updates a document every half second, thus providing a dizzying combo of wiki and chat (see what Etherpad looks like). Isn’t technology amazing?

Updated: The next generation in collaborative writing is close at hand. As early as end of 2009, we may be able to collaborate in absolute ‘real-time’ as Google Wave promises today with ‘live’ transmission collaboration. 

Examples
Check the Use Cases on the Etherpad site. One of the sessions in the Real Time Virtual Collaboration (RTVC) experiment, held last May 9, was run on Etherpad: check the RTVC mindmap also for other examples of real-time collaboration tools.

So there you have it! Some tools to help you get started with collaborative writing. In a nutshell, these tools can benefit you by:

  • bridging geographical distances, allowing people across continents to collaborate with regard to event/project development, information gathering and knowledge management;
  • uncluttering your email box along with the email boxes of your collaborators. While some may be content to use email for their communications, many people are looking for ways to reduce their email load. Whether working on project proposals or creating a knowledge base, these tools eliminate countless email transfers and, along with them, bits of information scattered in several different messages. These tools also house content at one location online, with researchers being able to access and collaborate on a living document.

Nonetheless, the process of writing within a team is challenging on its own, and the tools only provide a conducive environment. Getting past the hierarchies and the defensiveness requires tactful handling.

It would be a good idea to establish rules for collaborative writing, nothing set in stone, just simple guidelines on what is expected of the team, the purpose of the collaboration, and respectful editing practices that help the team to negotiate during discussions between collaborators when changes are needed.

Engaging collaborators at the very beginning, clarifying the objectives of the collaboration, suggesting a set of rules and encouraging them to add to it, may foster a sense of ownership and accountability. After all, technology can only go so far!

Till next time…

P.S. My thanks to Antonella Pastore, whose collaborative input made this blog post possible.

Technology continues to change; the way we collaborate with others has changed; and the way the CGIAR conducts its business is currently undergoing radical change. With the present air of change that is permeating the entire System, it was inevitable that CGXchange would, sooner or later, have to answer the call for a portal that meets current needs. As such, CGXchange’s intranet concept has been exchanged, so to speak, for a dual-concept application that satisfies both the need for public content and the need for ‘private’ collaboration spaces.

Past and present in the CGXchange 2.0 logo

Last month, we introduced the new, improved CGXchange 2.0, a platform based on Google Apps that satisfies our current needs by facilitating online collaboration and exchange both inside and outside the CGIAR.

Why Google Apps?” you might ask.

Well, with a highly decentralized set up like that of the CGIAR, over 8,000 staff in 120 offices, mostly in countries where connectivity is a challenge, and with a dire need to collaborate with colleagues and partners, we are always on the look out for solutions that simplify our work. So last year, we tried out Google Apps as a suite of collaboration tools and were suitably impressed. You can read the results of our experiments in the CGIAR Google Apps report.

A few months later, during the first half of March 2009, a selected group of testers evaluated a beta version of the site. The summary report of the test results is just out on CGX 2.0: tried, tested and passed with flying colors! We have included our replies to the comments and questions from the test participants.

So what’s so new with CGX 2.0?, you might as well ask. In a nutshell:

  • Public content: the tutorials, guides, links to useful resources, outcomes of our tests are open to anyone who wants to learn how non-profit institutions such as the CGIAR are taking advantage of online tools for improving communication, sharing and collaboration.
  • Openness is our main driving principle: while CGIAR staff benefits from the availability of the Google Apps collaboration tools, then anyone with a Google account can be invited to collaborate and view the information CGIAR staff will create with Google Apps.
  • Freedom of choice is our other driving principle: we aim to inform you and show you the possibilities that the Web offers to share knowledge and collaborate more efficiently online. The available tools can be safely used for closed and/or geographically distributed groups. We can guide you through the tools available, but you will make the final decision as to what is best for you.
  • We walk the talk and share the lessons by doing our best to test the tools in our context and share the circumstances in which they proved to be suitable and useful and referring to more than two years’ experience with the ICT-KM Program’s Knowledge Sharing projects.

What do I do now?, you might, again, ask.

You have a few options (and NOT necessarily in this sequence):

  1. Visit CGXchange 2.0
  2. Take a quick tour of the collaboration tools
  3. Request access to the Apps for yourself and your colleagues (if you’re CGIAR staff)
  4. Browse around the CGX 2.0 Newsfeeds Aggregator to experience keeping up-to-date with RSS feeds
  5. Sing along