Friday, 4 June 2010

Evaluating ThoughtFarmer 3.7 as a social intranet platform - Updated

UPDATE - please look in the comments to see new info from Chris McGrath of the ThoughtFarmer team.

I have owed the ThoughtFarmer team a blog posting since version 3.6 of their product came out. Now 3.7 has been released, and I have had the morning at home before heading out for the weekend for the Medieval Fayre, I though I better write something !

I have recently written a post for CMS Wire evaluating MS SharePoint 2010 as an Enterprise 2.0 platform by using Prof. Andrew MacAfee's original SLATES model. I gave it a pretty good score, but then used this months article to explore how some of the gaps could be filled by NewsGators Social Sites product. I noticed at some point that my old boss, Toby Ward of Prescient Digital Media had written an article on about Intranet 2.0 versus the 'social intranet' - he discounted 'Enterprise 2.0' as term, stating it means too many things to too many people, despite the availability of the original SLATES model and Dion Hinchcliffe's later FLATNESSES model.

So where is this leading us ? Well personally I think the ThoughtFarmer product gives you all the basic requirements of a 'social intranet' in one "out of the box" package, they have been calling themselves "social intranet software" for a long time ! The version 3.7 features pages is available here: so take a read for yourself. Even better, if you fill in the form on this page, they will send you the generic log in information to a live test site, so you can have a real play and see what you think. Anyway, I decided that I would do a quick evaluation of ThoughtFarmer 3.7 (TF from now on) against the larger and later FLATNESSES model, within the
context that it might provide the Intranet 2.0 element of your greater Enterprise 2.0 strategy:

TF demo Intranet home page

Freeform - egalitarian user experience: "no barriers to authorship (meaning free from a learning curve or from restrictions)"

TF at its most basic level is an enterprise wiki. All users can add and re-organize pages, they do this through their web browser via a Rich Text Editor interface or by simply typing content into an email and sending that to a specific address, see details of that feature here. So I think that TF gets 10 out of 10 for this element. For those who are worried by the idea of 'wiki'
meaning everyone can edit everything, you can be this wide open if you want, but you don't have to be , TF is a .Net platform and it integrates with MS Active Directory and you can manage security permissions and groups to provide a more traditional and less "open" experience if you wish.

TF create new page form

Links - using URI's to forge deep connections between content

Everything in TF is links, pages, attachments (documents), peoples profiles, metadata tags, etc. Even better these links are persistent URI's not just web server URL's, if you move a page, it does not break the links, allowing you to create those deep linkages between content. Again, I think a full 10 out of 10 for this element of the model. TF has different page layouts you can choose but it auto-generates navigation and hence the links for you.

TF personal profile page, top left area for adding and managing your links

Authorship - ensuring every worker has easy access to E2.0 Platforms

Allowing every worker access to your TF Intranet 2.0 platform as part of your E2.0 strategy is indeed easy. New in TF3.7 is forms based authentication that allows remote users to log in (and remain logged in) from outside of your firewall. Other elements of authorship include the ability to add pages, add comments to pages, create threaded discussions, even capture email discussions etc All of this easy to do in TF. I am going to be a little cheeky and rate this a little lower because there is no mobile app for easy authoring (i.e. no iPhone / iPad, Blackberry or Android app - you can still log on via your mobile browser though) so 8 out of 10.

Adding comments to a page

Tagging - allowing natural, organic on-the-fly organization of data from every view point

In other words, facilitate the 'folksonomy' approach of 'organic' tagging. Well TF definitely does this, but it also allows administrators to build what they call "tag bundles'. This can be closed, in other words a traditional taxonomy, or it can be open, which allows users to add new tags to those already provided - this is a hybrid folksonomy / taxonomy approach. Metadata tags can be used to filter search results, and using the new 'browse' feature can be used for 'guided navigation' - so again I will give TF a high score of 8 out of 10 for this element.

Adding tags to a page

Network Oriented - web based, resizable, addressable, small chunks

Well TF is obviously web based. It does allow you to author content in small chunks, and to arrange and re-arrange the hierarchy, all of which lends itself to content reuse. Although I am not sure the "network effect" is what Dion was driving at back in 2007 when he designed the model, I think TF facilitates the both the inherent and network oriented effects of allow users to link between their own and others content, to easily discover other users content and to examine the relationships between groups via the 'staff directory' functionality. I am going to be cautious and give TF a 7 out of 10 for this element of the model.

- extend knowledge by mining patterns and user activity

TF provides extensions such as rating content, activity streams, adding pages as favorites etc all of which is now pretty standard "social computing" features. I am not sure about the ability to do analytics, but while there are particular tools built in that I can see, I am sure there would be nothing to stop you running tools such as Google Analytics or WebTrends or some such. Hopefully the TF team will comment on this below. However I still give TF a conservative 7 out of 10.

Search - discoverability of information driving re-use

Search is I believe powered by the .Net version of Lucene. In my testing on the demo site results seemed pretty good (go play with it your self and see). Search scopes can be set, such as people, groups, or current section, and all metadata can be used for faceted search filtering. Of course I am sure there is nothing in the TF architecture that would stop you indexing the TF content with an existing Enterprise Search application, but I will give search 7 out of 10.

People search results

Search results

'Browse' by tags - Guided Navigation replaces the traditional site map ?

- non-hierarchical and transparent: "stressing transparency (to access), diversity (in content and community members) and openness (to structure)"

Well as Dion noted when he wrote this model, the original SLATES was more about assessing technology, and the 'social' element here is more about how you use a product than the product itself. However I will give TF a high mark for this element because it can provide simple and transparent access to corporate information in the form of a collaborative intranet. Being wiki based, there is nothing to stop you creating diversity in your content by opening up authoring permissions to a wide range of user communities. I think transparency is provided by the activity streams, and by rating other users content. By as noted before, this is an organizational culture thing, to paraphrase an anecdote passed onto me by someone working with a US Army Knowledge Management community "who is going to rate the General's content with only 1 star ?" Anyway, 10 out of 10 I reckon, for facilitating the possibilities…….

The Relationship explorer, part of the People Directory, has been in TF for sometime,
and is much better than the new one in SP2010 (IMHO)

- facilitate complex interactions between information from simple building blocks - "requiring the provision of approaches that detect and leverage the collective wisdom of the community'

Again, one of Dion's less technology platform specific elements. Again I would suggest easy authoring of content, discussion forums, comments, email discussion capture, rating of content etc all add up to the provision of an approach that facilitates the detection of collective wisdom, and allows it to be levered to generate fortuitous outcomes. However, there is no survey tool, no easy capability for pulling in data from elsewhere to create mashups or dashboards, so I may not be being fair here, but 7 out of 10 ???

- make information consumption efficient by pushing out signals

The recent activity part of each pages shows the user what has been going on. You can add links and RSS feeds to your profile page etc, but this is not really pushing out signals. Each page appears to provide an RSS feed of recent activity, but I could not successfully add feeds foam pages to the reader on my profile page, or to Google Reader, but this maybe an artificiality of the test server and generic count set up ? Until the TF team tell me otherwise, only 5 out of 10.

Summary and Conclusions
I am not being paid by the TF guys for giving them a good review. I have worked with the product since we evaluated version 1 for use at an organization in the UK. I currently work with SharePoint 2007 day in and day out, and have had lots of briefings and demos of SP2010. I am not going to say the TF is the 'best' product to build a social intranet, there is never a best product (despite what various marketing people may tell you) - you must evaluate products properly to see if they meet your particular needs, for your specific context.

But I will state that I think TF is an excellent social intranet platform, better than SharePoint in many respects, because it is not a "jack of all trades and master of non" development platform like SharePoint. You could certainly use the two products together, levering the strengths of both. Bottom line is, go play with the free demo, and make your own mind up :-)


Chris McGrath said...

Hi Jed, thanks for the review! There are some limitations on the ThoughtFarmer demo site that prevent evaluation of some of the features. For example, a crucial part of ThoughtFarmer's "signals" are the email notifications it sends when content that concerns you is changed, or when someone replies to one of your comments. Those aren't enabled on the demo site.

I also wanted to mention that we consider ThoughtFarmer an excellent complement to SharePoint. We will be releasing our SharePoint 2010 Connector shortly, which will allow you to take advantage of SharePoint's robust document management capabilities and Office integration from within ThoughtFarmer.

Jed Cawthorne said...


Many thanks for that update, much appreciated.

SharePoint connector sounds very cool and a great idea.