I’ve been playing with the new Google Sites offering on and off for a couple of months now. I joined under my work e-mail address and created a sort of mini portal for our team at work which could either be the answer to my prayers or a complete nightmare – I’m still undecided.

It took me a while to sort out a separate Google Apps account under my work e-mail but I got there eventually, although it does tend to get a little confusing having two Google accounts (one personal, one work). Once I’d registered it took me to our organisation’s section in Google, where I found around 30 other people who had registered (only one other from my department). No one else seems to have looked at the Sites element yet, so I thought I’d experiment.

The problem:

The main reason for me doing this was to replace and improve upon our current situation at the Information Helpdesk (enquiry desk). There’s two main elements that are currently in paper format which I feel would benefit from being electronic – a useful information folder and a helpdesk diary.

We currently have a “Useful Information Folder” into which goes, unsurprisingly, any information which may be useful for us when we’re on the helpdesk (e.g. procedural information, phone numbers, maps etc.). This would work OK if we remembered to use it properly. I try to keep it up-to-date, but being in paper format it’s not ideal and I know it’s not easy to find the information you’re after (it has an A-Z index but then there’s all the problems like is it a phone or a telephone?). I have to admit, I’ve never used it to help with an enquiry and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else use it either.

We also have an information book, sort of like a diary. Into this goes details to keep us all up-to-date (for example, current assignments and where best to look for information on a certain topic, new projects that have recently been added to stock, etc.). Again, this is fine in principle, but in practice I know we don’t use it as we should and tend to e-mail each other instead.

The solution?

I’ve been thinking about how we can improve things and I knew I wouldn’t be able to rest until I’d given it a go. The voices in my head just weren’t going away, they were screaming at me and tormenting me:

  • Useful Information Folder = WIKI
  • Diary = BLOG

I’ve been wanting to get a procedural wiki sorted for a while now, but it’s such a mammoth task that I haven’t been able to give it a go (I think it’s something that will one day have to go through the project route and get everyone in the department on board).

As for a blog, other teams in our department are using them with great success, and as long as everyone gets on board and are comfortable reading and contributing to the blog then I think it makes a lot more sense than a paper diary.

I didn’t want to have two totally different products and needed something that is easy to use for a total novice, so when I heard about Google Sites which combines the two products (and more!) and is supposedly very easy to use, I thought it was worth a go. One of the big advantages to putting it all electronic means you can now search the whole site to very easily find what you’re looking for (no more searching through indexes!). Another great feature is the page subscription, you can either subscribe to the whole site (in which case you will receive an e-mail every time something is changed with the altered text in the e-mail), or just certain pages (e.g. staff could subscribe to the announcements page so that they would receive an e-mail whenever a new announcement was added). You can see a screenshot below (click for larger version – it’s nothing special, I’ve only spent a very limited amount of time on it so far!).

Team Portal

I’ve still only really got a basic skeleton of the portal but the main sections include:

  • Announcements (to replace the diary)
  • Procedures and useful information (to replace the useful information folder)
  • Useful documents and forms (so that people can quickly and easily download forms we use regularly like room booking sheets and enquiry tracking sheets)

I’ve also added an enquiry follow up form which is linked to Google Spreadsheets. The idea of this is that if a student wants some subject specific help or needs to book an appointment the librarian on duty can complete the enquiry follow up form which will send the enquiry to the spreadsheet (and an alert to anyone who is subscribed to the spreadsheet). I don’t know whether this will work but it’s something to play with.

I’ve asked a few people from the team to have a look at the site and see how easy it is to use before we can make a decision about whether or not it’s something worth pursuing. I haven’t spent too long on it yet as it might prove to be impractical, but so far I’ve found it relatively straight forward to use.

I can see it could be very useful for collaborative websites, but to be honest I think most organisations already have this sort of thing sorted with intranets or other solutions such as Microsoft SharePoint. Nevertheless, Google’s offering has the huge advantage that it’s free and easily accessed from anywhere.

Has anyone else used Google Sites for anything or do you know of an even better alternative?

  • My first thought when I reading about the useful information folder that I’d be inclined to create a page in Pageflakes or Netvibes, both of which will let you create address/phone # modules, links to important sites, search engines, maybe tabs for different subject areas, message board area and so on. If you change the default browser login page to the Pageflakes/Netvibes page(s) staff will always be reminded to use it since it’ll be right in front of them.

  • Thanks Phil, I hadn’t thought about that – definitely something worth exploring. I’m a Pageflakes user myself and have also had a play with Netvibes but hadn’t thought about using it like that, I just use it as my own “control panel”. Unfortunately most people log on using their own ID so I don’t think I could make it a default, but it’s certainly something to look into.

  • Hi Jo

    I’m interested in your Wiki project. Have you got any larger screenshots, the ones on Flickr are still quite small?

    Like the blog, consider me subscribed!

    Many thanks,

    Martin
    SE – Research
    Institution of Mechanical Engineers

  • Hi Martin, glad you found it interesting. 🙂

    If you go to the Flickr page you should be able to click on “All Sizes” above the image to see a larger preview. If you would like to see screenshots of any of the other pages, please let me know and I can e-mail them to you or upload more to Flickr.

    Following on from this, I created a quick PageFlakes page after Phil’s suggestion, and also created a topic in our VLE (we have a new version which is being released at the beginning of August). I presented each of the three ideas to the team along with advantages and disadvantages of each, and a consensus was reached that we would pursue the VLE option (the new version has added blog and wiki functionality). I’m currently finishing producing guides/demos and hope to start using it within the next couple of weeks so will post an update once I’ve got some feedback.

    There are a few small scale wiki projects on the go at the moment, and I’m hoping we can expand the wiki to incorporate the whole department in the future.