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Pushing Collaboration Outside the Firewall

I’ve recently been evaluating social networking software for a non-profit agency and I saw a type of collaborative ability I hadn’t seen before. A couple of the higher-end products claimed the whiteboarding and project collaboration group areas could actually be pushed outside corporate firewalls to allow collaboration with outsiders.

This seems intriguing given the new momentum for Government + Open Source initiatives such as GOSCON. That sounds like a great opening for using such a tool.

I haven’t had a chance to actually see these in action or get the specs on how security, permissions, etc. are handled in such an arrangement. Is anyone familiar with this in social networking tools?

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Andy Oram

I’ll just provide a bit of perspective from industry–in particular, my company O’Reilly Media, which has always been interesting in keeping in touch with a community of smart outsiders and using the Internet to do it.

Businesses operate a lot differently from government agencies, of course, but there are still constraints in business. Everybody has to have a sense of what is OK to say to outsiders and what isn’t. We’ll probably talk about a general strategy before we mention particular books or conferences we’re planning. We’ll proudly announce a new hire, but be reluctant to mention that someone left the company until we have to explain his absence.

Anyway, with these understandings (usually tacit) in place, we have a very open discussion policy. We have mailing lists that are mostly internal but still include people who have left the company, and other outsiders we trust. I think it would probably be a good idea to make some of the tacit understandings more explicit, but we’ve never had a problem with an embarrassing revelation.

Dan Lentine

I am not a technical guy, so I don’t have answers for you. But I am working on a program collaboration/integration effort within the government that includes, and must be lock-step, with our grantees in the states. I’m looking to try social networking and other tools that can help us. All that to say, I think you are asking the right question – big need here for both technological tools AND a manageable process for completing tasks/products with large groups of people.

Joe Flood

A tool outside the firewall is needed for government increasingly works with outside partners, like universities and nonprofits. How do you coordinate projects, meetings, reports or other shared activities? I suspect the most common method is to email docs back and forth across email lists with everyone in the world cc’d, and prodigious use of the “track changes” feature in Word.

I’m a fan of Basecamp http://basecamphq.com/ It’s a web-based tool that allows people to share calendars, files, to-do lists and so on. It was designed to be a simpler version of MS Project.

The Google suite (Docs, Calendar) would be a good free alternative.

But I’m sure someone is going to come along and say that federal rules prohibit the use of such tools!

Adam Arthur

A lot of agencies are going with open source platforms and installing them behind their partner’s firewalls. Cheap, efficient, less red tape, and it accomplishes what you’re saying.