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ThoughtFarmer – Intranet 2.0

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No, this is not an oxymoron. ThoughtFarmer provides a nice integration of old school intranet and new school social media to provide a comprehensive platform for enterprise 2.0.

A few weeks ago I met with Chris McGrath, co-creator & product evangelist for ThoughtFarmer, at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston. The ThoughtFarmer team has been doing web application development for large corporations and government clients in Vancouver, Canada since 1995. ThoughtFarmer began as a client project for Intrawest Placemaking (the development division of Intrawest, the company behind Whistler Blackcomb, Steamboat, Winter Park, and several other resorts).

Placemaking wanted the ultimate intranet: an always-current, self-healing knowledge repository that would capture the company’s intellectual capital and strengthen workplace community. Chris and his colleagues developed a prototype of the system that was enthusiastically embraced by Placemaking. But when they went looking for a technology to power it in Placemaking’s Microsoft environment, the only apparent option was a heavily-customized version of SharePoint.

The SharePoint customization couldn’t match the prototype and would exceed the project budget, so Intrawest put the project on hold. Chris and his colleagues saw a market opportunity to build a wiki-inspired intranet platform specifically for Microsoft environments – a simpler, friendlier alternative to SharePoint. So they invested their own funds, built ThoughtFarmer version 1.0 from scratch on the .NET platform, and sold the first copy to their original client. The result is documented in a case study on Cases 2.0.

ThoughtFarmer’s primary goal for Placemaking was simple: turn all users into authors. Using an underlying wiki base, all employees at Placemaking can add, edit and annotate content on the ThoughtFarmer-powered intranet. With the exception of a few policy documents, Placemaking’s intranet is a completely open, malleable, living collection of current thoughts, processes and key lessons learned.

This reminds me of what Janssen-Cilag did when they scrapped their traditional intranet for a wiki so everyone could contribute, except ThoughtFarmer takes this concept much farther. The wiki base is embedded under a full suite of intranet and social media tools in ThoughtFarmer. As they say nicely on their site, “ThoughtFarmer embraces the good things wikis have brought us: an open, easy, democratic authoring environment with no barriers to content creation. ThoughtFarmer then adds structure and social networking to that wiki core.” You get “wiki collaboration, without the chaos.” Here is a screen shot of a ThoughtFarmer intranet with some features highlighted.

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With its latest 3.0 release, ThoughtFarmer provides blogs, calendaring, discussions, document management, people profiles, search, security, tagging, version history, wikis, workstreams, and more. You can have free tagging like del.icio.us or closed tagging with a taxonomy. One example of closed taxonomies is the physician extranet “Primary Care Central” they deployed for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. For example, to find a lab requisition on Primary Care Central, a physician can navigate by lab location, condition type, or requisition type. The tags help surface the same lab form in multiple, logical locations.

ThoughtFarmer is also multilingual. They now support English, French, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean because of current clients and will add more languages on request. ThoughtFarmer is optimized for organizations with 100 to 5,000 employees that run in a Microsoft environment, as most do at that size. They authenticate with Active Directory to make it easy for these organizations.

ThoughtFarmer has a blog by its own name that includes some interesting cases studies such as Graymont Limited, a mining company that works in 200 year old quarries using enterprise 2.0 technology. Graymont wanted to create a common set of information tools for over 1000 employees in several dozen locations across the continent. Graymont’s IT Director, Ron Ogilvy, said that their ThoughtFarmer intranet is “a continuously evolving, self-healing base of information.” There are also great pictures of the mines.

In Spring 2008, ThoughtFarmer tried a creative marketing idea to reach bloggers. They created a fake company, Tubetastic, with the slogan “We make tubes – a whole series of them” (a reference to Ted Steven’s infamous remarks on net neutrality). They set up a ThoughtFarmer-powered intranet to run the company. They placed selected bloggers in key positions in the company and invited them to participate. I was on the list and did look at the intranet but was too distracted with other things to comment at the time. However, ReadWriteWeb and TechCrunch wrote about it and it got nice comments from people like Jeremiah Owyang and Suw Charman-Anderson. It is an innovative idea that might only come from British Columbia. Kudos to them for trying it. But more importantly, I think that ThoughtFarmer provides a nice blend of traditional intranet functions with social media in a wiki base. It has achieved its goal of turning intranets on their head to increase participation and bring them into enterprise 2.0.

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