Facilitating improved collaboration among CGIAR Centers and partners is an important priority for the CGIAR’s ICT-KM team. The CGIAR (Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) is a consortium of 15 international agricultural research Centers with more than 8,000 CGIAR scientists and staff working in over 100 countries.
In early 2009, with the purpose of providing practical and easy-to-use tools for online collaboration, the CGIAR ICT-KM program implemented Google Apps Education Edition. The Google Apps Education Edition is a suite of hosted collaboration tools that includes calendar, chat, documents, sites and video.
At the time of writing, we count over 900 active CGIAR users on Google Apps (i.e. account holders), around 120 Google Sites, and over 12,000 unique visitors across theCGXchange domain for the 3rd quarter of 2010.
The figures look pretty good in our opinion. We really love Google, especially the collaborative tools on Google Apps, but we do have some issues, particularly when it comes to encouraging organization-wide adoption of the platform. Having supported and actively used Google Apps for almost two years now, we believe that Google is injuring itself with its own products.
Limited Tools for Google Apps Users
With a public Google Mail account people can use a wide variety of tools such as Gmail, Docs, Sites, Blogger, Picasa, Reader, YouTube, iGoogle and much more.
Under the corporate Google Apps account, however, users only have a subset of the tools provided by Google, because Google claims that the corporate world only needs the tools that are part of the suite today. Well, we don’t think so!
The problem we face constantly is that many users already have a personal Gmail account, so they ask: Why should I use the corporate Google account if it doesn’t provide all the Google applications I’m already using?
At first glance, they’re right! To be fair, however, there are some clear advantages (at least for the CGIAR) in using the corporate Google Apps account:
- No advertisements, so it gives users more of an ‘institutional’ feel
- More space on Docs, Mail and Sites
- Single Sign-on using the CGIAR’s username and password to login, so no need to remember yet another password
- Easy-to-find contacts in the CGIAR for sharing any type of resources and collaborating, because we have imported the users from Active Directory
From the standpoint of administration, user management is streamlined with the synchronisation with our Active Directory.
In May 2010, Google announced their plan to add more applications to Google Apps.This is great news since our users will be able to take advantage of the other tools and the Google Apps Suite will be much more integrated. We trust it will happen soon…
Public Google Groups vs. Google Apps Google Groups
Google is also competing against itself in how it offers Google Groups. Google Groups was added to the Google Apps suite, but with fewer features than the version available with a personal Gmail account. For instance, Groups on Google Apps does not allow users to create pages and create a real single place for collecting information.
This is particularly important in the case of the CGIAR because working groups are very often formed by people from inside and outside of the organization. Dispersing the resources needed for, say, an online consultation across multiple tools (mail discussion on Groups, documents in Docs, updates on Sites) is not helping users to take advantage of the platform. Again, there is a real need to harmonize the possibilities of the public tool and the corporate tool.
Different Google Docs URLs across Domains
CGIAR staff work a lot with partners, so when we create a Google document on our Google Apps and share it with people outside of our domain the URL of the document is different for them from the one available to Google Apps users.
Document link for a Gmail account holder: https://docs.google.com/Doc?docid=0AZfuEIKrAdcpZGM1eGdwbmJfOTTJL2M5anM4Z…
Document link of the same document for a Google Apps account holder:
The same document has two different URLs! This is a real issue for us because it prevents us from publishing links to documents on a Website or Google Site that is shared with people outside of our domain.
Sites are by far the most popular apps used on our platform, and it is often a challenge to explain that people cannot link to a shared document from a site page if the collaborators come from different domains. Providing a solution to this is essential to facilitate collaboration between our Google Apps domain and external partners.
New Google Docs Editor vs. the Classic Google Doc Editor
We appreciate the fact that Google constantly releases new features to its apps. This is one of the main advantages of relying on a Software as a Service (SaaS) solution. But while the idea of Google controlling the software updates is fine, it’s not so great when they actually remove key features from the updated versions.
This has been the case with the new Google Docs editor, released a few months ago. On one hand, new features were introduced, like finer control on margins and comment boxes. But they took away a few we were so fond of: offline document editing, HTML source view, and version comparison.
For the practical purpose of collaborative writing, comparing versions of a document is a key feature that helps to maintain the changing trail while allowing collaborators to work on one single source document. This feature is essential for any type of collaboration! The new Google editor has many improved features and we applaud Google for that, but they cannot just take away key features that are essential for collaborative writing.
To our surprise just yesterday, Google announced the official release of the additional features for viewing the document revisions which is great!
For better or for worse, the two editors are both available to users. If on one hand, it has allowed many of us who were not happy with the new editor to continue working in Docs, on the other it has been confusing for the new users that we have trained over the last couple of months. It has become a bit chaotic lately for technical support: we wish that more timely communication of new features would be available before rollout, not after.
Limited Administration Tools
While Google is targeting the corporate market aggressively lately (see their fancy savings calculator gonegoogle.com), it is still not thinking corporate IT. The Google Apps platform does not yet provide some key administration tools that would reassure many IT managers.
Online collaboration advocates like us need the tools for monitoring and evaluating adoption over time. For example, we are only approximately able to count active users. There is no report of the number of Sites created and how much space they use. There are no administration tools for Docs, so when a CGIAR staff member leaves, there is hardly a way to go in and back up their documents. This lack of backup tools is making it really difficult to introduce the Google Apps on a large scale, when an organization has a policy on conservation of institutional memory.
Our final messages to Google
- Please don’t compete against yourself. Offer the tools in the public version of the corporate Google Apps as well. Unless you do this, people will just continue to use the public version and the expanding Google Apps in the corporate world will be very frustrating.
- We are really happy with Google Apps. We are ambassadors for these tools in our institution and we plan to continue to be, but please: don’t remove essential collaborative features…improve them instead!”
- Give us the tools to monitor users and usage, report on adoption, and facilitate the backup and conservation of key institutional information: this is a major constraint in proposing the Google Apps as a real, valid alternative to other systems that are by far worse than the Apps when it comes to collaboration across geographically distributed team.