By Joseff Betancourt
According to the Small Business Administration, small businesses account for 99.7 percent of all U.S. businesses and employ about half of all private sector employees. This makes sense, since the definition of a “small” business is pretty big: “an independent business having fewer than 500 employees.” Have you ever been in a crowd of 500 people? Living in NYC all my life, I have, and I can tell you it’s pretty nerve wracking at times (think crammed train during rush hour).
So how do you get your “big” small business working effectively together? Well, with enterprise technology, of course. But although small businesses may have strength in numbers, their IT budgets usually fall short on the financial spectrum. The technologists in these companies, usually a one to two man crew, look for bargain-basement-priced technologies that have the punch of their larger-priced cousins.
I’ve recently played around with some sure-fire open source technologies that should help the over-taxed tech manager breathe a sigh of relief when it comes to bringing next-generation collaboration, access control, and e-commerce systems to their organizations.
The first offering is a great replacement for Microsoft SharePoint that can be used to facilitate team sites, interoffice communication via workgroups, document revision tracking and general communication. Like SharePoint, you can even use it as a website.
I’m talking about WordPress, of course! At the time of this writing, WordPress 3.x series is out and it packs a wallop in terms of usability and functionality. Now there are tons of other open source content management systems (CMS). But in light of trying to keep these solutions in the realm of ease and performance, WordPress is hard to beat.
In addition to Joomla and Drupal, I’ve worked with WordPress for a long time now and can safely say that it’s become my favorite CMS system. The theme system is easier to use and the plug-ins are a snap to create and maintain compared to the rest. Even modifying the core system attributes is simple, with all the hooks built right into the libraries. WordPress isn’t a side-project blog system anymore; it’s a full-fledged CMS touting among its users some of the finest brands in the print and online industry.
In order for WordPress to become that functional SharePoint replacement sytem, a few tweaks need to be made. You’ll need to create a social networking system that interacts with the core file. Also, you need to hack the user interface on the core admin files in order to make the back end easier to use. Because you’ll need access control, conditional lookups in the theme will need to allow for different membership types. Extra functionality like an e-commerce bridge to a banking system will need to be added to your list of things to do as well.
This could require a lot of work and money. Fortunately, there are already plug-ins available to do all the aforementioned things, plus more. So before you program your own systems by downloading and installing plug-ins, make sure you enable the Multi-Site feature. This gives you the SharePoint-like feature of multiple workgroups/websites.
After you know that your WordPress Multi-Site functionality is up, the first plug-in that you absolutely, positively need is BuddyPress (it’s free). This will transform your WordPress installation into a social network with groups, forums and friendships (ala Facebook) that your users can use to interact with one another. Most themes will need to be modified to make use of the unique hooks in BuddyPress, but some themes come BuddyPress-ready. The fine folks over at WPMUDEV have some of the most useful BuddyPress themes around. They are ready out of the box, or to be used as a skeleton kit. You’ll need to purchase an inexpensive subscription, but you’ll soon find that it’s worth it for the amount of nifty plug-ins and themes they have ready to go.
Now that you are BuddyPress-enabled, you need to add a membership system. Luckily, WPMUDEV has a good one available to members, called WordPress Membership. Place it in your “mu-plugin” folder and you’re ready to go. This enables you to create different groups for different members.
Now that you have your membership, also known as access control, you can extend your site with an e-commerce platform. Maybe an employee store where employees can buy branded material for wholesale? Maybe you can sell your employees sick days? Better yet, sell your employees their computers for work – then let them maintain and keep them. Whatever the case, the WPMUDEV guys have this covered with WordPress Ecommerce. Now simply download, install and set up the e-commerce plug-in and you are ready to go within an hour.
The last part is installing a really easy user interface that looks as close to Microsoft Word as possible. At this point, your collaboration system is ready. This could be a shameless plug for the WPMUDEV guys, but you know what? Their “EZ” plug-in series is so darn easy that I need to mention it! What they do is literally replace the entire WordPress back end with a really easy-to-use editor. This hides areas of the back end that could theoretically be tempting targets for curious insiders. In my book, better safe than sorry.
After this, you have a pretty cool internal or external shared workspace at pennies on the dollars to a SharePoint solution.
Are there other software platforms that do this? Sure, but they’re not as inexpensive or as integrated. There are other WordPress theme kits and plug-ins out there as well, but once you start to mix and match them, your QA period and cost run up. I like to stick with WPMUDEV because they ensure all their plug-ins are cross-tested and are compatible – and those times that they are found to be incompatible, their support is on it ASAP, which I’ve always found to be delightful.