I emailed back and for with Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress. The topic was not WordPress directly, although I do have a WordPress powered blog and would have loved to chat on that too. Rather, we spent some time talking about collaboration tools, open source, and how companies can get going using non commercial collaboration tools such as blogs and wikis.
Matt will be a speaker at the Collaborative Technologies Conference on the topic of Open Source Collaboration Solutions.
My opening question was to ask Matt what kind of collaboration tools he used. Well, WordPress, like many projects today, is distributed - most work is virtual. Therefore, you do not have the option of collaboration tools such as a piece of paper - rather, one must turn online for solutions. The WordPress folks use Subversion for source control, and Trac for coordinating bugs and getting some code insight. More generally, they use wikis a lot.
All of the documentation is user-generated in a wiki using the same software that Wikipedia does, called Mediawiki. For communication between developers we use AIM, lots of mailing lists and email, and an IRC channel that has chats 24/7 and a weekly IRC meeting.
I think blogs and wikis are collaborative technologies of the highest sort. I think many enterprise systems I've been exposed to were over-engineered and too complicated, things need to be as simple as humanly possible and have a flexible UI (like email) to really take off.
I agree with Matt when he says that blogs and wikis will bring the greatest impact to the corporate world over the next world. We've already witnessed how blogs can be used externally to generate communication between customer and company, and now we're just starting to see how blogs, not to mention wikis, can be used internally to enhance communication and collaboration with very little work. And that's the important thing. As I've noted before, collaboration must be seamless to be used. Anything that creates more work or detracts from the task rather than making it easier will fail to get the internal adoption it needs to take off.
When it came time to examine the benefits of open source collaboration tools, I wanted to know what Matt saw as the benefits of open source vs. commercial applications. And benefits other than just cost, of course. This is the response I got:
The traditional benefits of Open Source over proprietary tools are pretty widely regarded, now that companies like IBM, HP, and Novell are batting for open source software there's not as much as a fight for legitimacy. I think in the long term open source software has the brightest and most promising future, I wouldn't want my company reliant on someone else's business model in such a rapidly changing market. Selling software is dead.
Ha! I agree. Aside from the innovation coming out of the open source world, we also have this issue of obsolescence - how soon after you buy a tool will a newer, better version come out? Or until it is eclipsed by something that can do more, easier, and integrates with other programs more seamlessly. We've been seeing this time and again with just about everything. But, especially in collaboration, I think we'll see it more and more. We're really just scraping the surface of what collaboration tools can do and how we should envision them. For example, we can expect a lot of convergence in tools to happen - IM with VoIP, for example, has already begun. I think we can also expect this to evolve in more ways - shared editing added to your IM/VoIP client. Just logical extensions that don't appear until someone thinks up how to do it. So, as long as there is this flux in the market and this intense concentration in collaboration in particular for what we can do, I think 'investing' in commercial software is worse than a sunk cost.
Ok, so my one criticism of open source would be its lack of focus on the market. This is not a universal thing - there are a ton of really forward thinking people out there developing open source tools - but, at the same time, you have others just building programs for the sake of it. No focus on use scenarios or customers, really. So, this lack of customer service and market insight can, in many cases, make the market as a whole slow to respond to changes and needs. It's a hard argument to make. Sometimes being small is in essence what allows these open source communities to respond faster. So, who knows. I did pose this to Matt and he came up with a really true statement. That, even if a project fails, the work is never lost. Anyone can just pick up the code and take it in a new path. Apparently, that's just what WordPress did.
In a proprietary world that sort of innovations built on the intellectual commons of a disparate community just isn't possible.
So, are you excited about the new options available for your company to enhance your own collaborations? In particular, do you want some advice on how to start using blogs and wikis? Well, I wanted this advice too. I think it's valuable to hand on. Funny, but extremely valid, suggestion from Matt: turn off email for a day. Just one day. Restrict all your collaboration to the blog and wiki. It could work - given the old method, people might just revert to it rather than learn something new. But, if you make a challenge of it, maybe have some sort of contest or prize for it, then it would give that learning curve a boost. Plus, taking collaboration out of email has benefits you may not realize:
It's really sad how much corporate information and intelligence is languishing away in someone's inbox when it could be archived, searchable, and referenced as a permanent resource. Ideally every employee has their own personal blog inside the firewall and there are group or project blogs which aggregate certain posts and collect relevant pingbacks and trackbacks from the personal blogs. Wikis should be as easy to create as starting a new email, and everyone's start page should be some sort of internal aggregator.
Make your collaboration a permanent archive of your collaboration. It's a security against losing intellectual property if someone leaves your team. But, as Matt notes, it's also a cross-linked, searchable resource to speed up collaboration efforts. People know your status, you share ideas, you aggregate projects for others to see. Really great. I truly wish I had experienced this in a corporate scenario. I've been truly frustrated at attempting to insert project management efforts in the past. There are many companies out there who don't want to hand over $10k for a project management system, but who don't know about free or low cost options available in non-traditional non-commercial packages. A few years back I struggled to create and maintain a project management and collaboration system using shared folders and spreadsheets - imagine how cumbersome that was! And how it was doomed to fail. Useful for me, but a lot of work. Oh well, it was better than the binder system that died before it.
So, take the next step and turn off your email. Start a blog, start a wiki. And make it both useful and fun.
Also, come join us at the Collaborative Technologies Conference. Will be a great chance to discuss many of these great ideas!