Customized Google Groups an overview - Part 2

In the second installment of this two part series, Tim Lange shows how to use Google Groups for business use.

In Part 1 of this series, I explained the four types of Google Groups (Email List, Web Forum, Q&A Forum, and Collaborative Inbox) and explained the settings that make up a Google Group. These settings allow for great control over how the group functions and how its members use the group. Part 2 of this series will show you how to create a Google Group for a particular business use.

Collaborative Inbox

Of the four default Google Groups, Collaborative Inbox is my favorite. With it, one can set up a group that can act as a service center, such as a Help Desk, or for a variety of other uses. This type of Google Group comes pre-configured so that multiple members can take part in each topic while an owner or manager can assign topics, add tags, and moderate messages. For the purpose of this exercise, I am going to create a Collaborative Inbox group for a company help desk.

To get started, log on to Google Apps and click on "Groups" in the black Google bar where Google's services sit. Assuming that you are using the new version of Groups, click on the "New Group" button and fill out all the necessary information (Figure A).

Figure A

Custom settings

The Collaborative Inbox group has default settings but for the purpose of this group, I only want the members, i.e. Help Desk staff, to have the ability to View Topics and Join the group. Since "All organization members" can Post, there is not a need to allow everyone in the organization to be a member of the group.

Once the settings have been configured, go into the group settings, which is located under the sprocket button. Now it's time to fully customize the group. Since this is a group which will be used to support people who will ask questions or need work done, we want to change the Topic Type to "Discussions and Questions" and select "Questions" for Default Topic Type. A Discussion is a general topic that can be replied to by any member. A Question is a formal discussion which allows workflow to be used so that it can be assigned to a member to answer. Once those changes have been made, click the blue "Save" button at the top.

Let's dig into the other group settings to finish customizing the group. Under Settings and then Email Options, I'm going to set a prefix for each topic that is posted. (Figure B).

Figure B


Next, I'm going to restrict who can join the group. This group will be used by IT staff and I do not want those outside the department to join since members of the group will be responsible for replying to topics. However, I still want to give anyone outside of the group permission to post topics. In order to do this, first I want to configure those people that can be members. Under Settings - New Members, I select "Only invited users" for the Join the group setting. This restricts membership to people that are explicitly invited or added as a member to the group. (Figure C)

Figure C

After clicking the "Save" button, I want to add members to the group. Going to the settings menu Members and then Direct add members, I can type in the email address of those people that I want to add to the Members role in the group. There are different email subscription options that control the amount of emails regarding topics that the members will receive. I choose the default "All Email" so that these members receive an email every time a topic is posted and a reply is posted. (Figure D)

Figure D

Now, I'm going to review the permissions for the Members role. I want to ensure this role has all the functionality needed to handle the topics coming into the group. Going to the Roles setting category, three default roles are available - Owners, Managers, and Members. If I click on that role, I can edit the settings, specifically the Permissions.

All the default settings are fine; however I want to add the permission "Post as the group". When a group member replies to a topic, the member has the option of either replying as himself or as the group. If the member replies as himself, then the reply will come from his email address. Yet, if the member replies as the group, then the reply will come from the group email address. So then a reply to that address will come back into the group rather than sent to a specific member's email address.

See it in action

Now that all the settings have been finalized, it is time to put the group to use. All members of the organization can post topics either via email or using the web user interface. As topics are posted to the group, the owner/manager can assign them to members or the members can "take" the topic as their own. Due to the settings I configured, to assign or take responsibility for a topic, click on the topic to open it and select the appropriate action. If the "Assign" button is selected, a pop-up appears so that you can select the member to assign it to (Figure E).

Figure E

It is also helpful to add tags to topics to classify them or to aid while searching for specific topics. To add a tag while the topic is opened, click on the link "add tags" next to the topics title and then select existing tags or type one in to create the tag and add it to the topic (Figure F). Click "Save Changes" when all tags have been added.

Figure F

Additionally, topics can be marked as "Completed" or "No action needed" (Figure G).

Figure G

Members also have the option to filter topics by a number of criteria (Figure H).

Figure H

Topics can also be locked and if there are topics which are for the same issue, they can be marked as duplicates. All these features help the group members communicate about the topics and their status.

Final result

The Collaborative Inbox Google group has a vast array of features and abilities that will fit the needs of any size organization. The group settings provide a lot of flexibility to customize the group behavior to fit most business needs.

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Tim Lange is an IT professional who, among other things, manages Google Apps for his company.

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