25 March 2013

Employee Contact, Profile and Directory Information (via Google Apps for Business)

After spending the usual unexpectedly long period of time to figure out the structure of Google Directory, Contact and Profile management for Google Apps for Business, I thought I'd share a summary of how it ties together.  I also provide references to help you figure out synchronising contact info and a few thoughts about the risks of using Google Plus Profiles.

(Please note this blog entry is about using Contacts, Profiles, and Directory in a business context, not for personal use.)

The Basics

If you just want to make Google Apps and Contacts work, read this section.  Basically, you will need to learn about Google Contacts and Google Plus (Profiles/About).

  1. Log in to your Google company account (YourName@yourcompany.com) to get started (e.g., via your Contacts page)
  2. If you're not already there, select Contacts from the top horizontal Google services menu.  You'll note "My Contacts" in the left-side navigation.  Use the "My Contacts" group to manage your own personal and private contact information.  By default you see a list of contacts that you have sent/received email (TBC). Anything you add to default employee contact information is private just to you and is not shared.  Google Contact information can be synchronised with other contact management software/platforms like Apple iOS, Google Android, and Microsoft Outlook.  The level/quality of sync is good and it's consistent across at least OS X, iOS and Android (see below for some helpful links on Contacts sync).
  3. Use Google Plus (select "Profile" in left-side navigation, then select "About" from horizontal menu) to set up your own Google Profile that can be shared with others.  The information in your profile should be work focused (use your own private Google account for personal information).  By default some of the less sensitive information you enter into your Google Plus Profile will be publicly shared - this can be limited through Profile settings.  You should take a look at the public version of your Google Plus Profile to make sure you are comfortable with the level of sharing.  Your Google Plus Profile is not well synchronised with other devices and contact software via standard sync mechanisms.  
  4. Unfortunately, there is no sharing of Google Contact information between people (employees of a company), i.e., a centralised and robust employee directory with employee details.  However, you can use your Google Plus Profile to add and share your contact information with others via Google Plus via web browser access or using Google Plus apps on phones/pads.

Further Details

Google's way of managing employee ("Contact") information is confusing.  Three fundamental collections of contact information (Directory, Contacts, Profile) are distributed across three separate yet partially-integrated access points (Control Panel, Contacts, Plus).  Here is how they tie together:

1. Google Contacts (aka "My Contacts").  Available to all employees.  Contacts are created (I think) in two ways.  First: In the "Directory" list of employees, you change or add any field of information (except Circles).  Second: you send or receive an email to someone on the Directory list (TBC).  By putting someone in the Directory list into a Circle, I think this sends a "join circles" invite to the employee but doesn't create a Contact.  Contacts are used by employees to store their own private information about other Google Apps users in the company or any contact information about anyone (employee or external) the employee wants to add.  Employee created contact information is not seen by or shared with other employees.  The information can be sync'ed with other devices through at least CardDav (Apple iOS), Android, and Outlook.  Sync quality is good.

2. Google Plus Profile (select "Profile" from left navigation and "About" from horizontal navigation).  Employee can self-maintain information about themselves in their Google Plus Profile.  Profiles are connected to Google Directory and Contacts.  Particularly useful is the "Contact Information" section in the Profile to enter phone numbers.  Google Plus Profiles are not fully integrated with Google Apps.  It appears that Google is planning to use Google Plus Profile (rather than Google Contacts) to share contact information between people, including employees.  Unfortunately, profile information doesn't sync into your other non-Google contact management software or devices.  Instead you just get a link to the user's profile.

3. Directory (aka Directory Profile).  Accessed from the left-side navigation of Contacts.  Available to all employees.  Directory is a list of all users associated with the company/domain in the Google Apps.  The Directory shows the same user list managed by the Administrator in the Google Admin Control Panel.  By default a user's Directory form shows name, physical address, email address, Notes and attached user profiles although you can add any type of contact field you want.  If you enter or change any information on this form (other than a Circles addition/change), a personal private contact in the My Contact list is created as a derivative of the Directory entry.  Directory entries also connect company employees to their Google Plus Profile.

4. Google Admin Control panel, User Management.  For Google Apps administrators only. This is where employees are first added to Google Apps by administrators for the business.  The only only useful contact information stored here is the employee's name, primary email address and email address aliases (aka "nicknames").  This function is primarily used to add, delete and otherwise administer employees.  Administrators also use the control panel to enable/disable contact sharing (which is enabled by default) and specify related permissions.  Note that "Contact Sharing" is really misleading - it should actually be called "Directory Sharing" because all it does is expose Directory entries (and related limited information) to your users via the Contacts function.

Using "Search" in Contacts makes this really clear.  You can see when and how employees and their information is split between the three areas: My Contacts (Contacts); Circles (Profile); Domain Contacts (aka Directory - more confused naming!).

Tips on Sync

The following are references to instructions to set up sync on various platforms:

  • iOS/iPhone/iPad - Contacts syncing with CardDav.  Don't use the older MS-Exchange way of syncing.  If you have problems, see also:
    • http://support.google.com/mail/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=2753077
    • http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4872?viewlocale=en_US
  • OS X
    • Make sure you're running the latest version of OS X
    •  http://www.tuaw.com/2012/09/28/google-now-supports-carddav-making-it-easier-than-ever-to-import/
  • Android phones and tablets - as the others, works fine for contacts but not for Google Plus Profile information
  • Outlook and Blackberry - not tested, but I assume works it works fine for Contacts and not for Plus profile information


Using Google Plus in the enterprise is somewhat risky for several reasons:

  1. By default much of the profile and other information is publicly shared by default.  While this can be restricted by users, it can't be restricted at a global administrative level except by turning off all Google Plus access for all users in the domain.
  2. It appears that Google is using Plus and Apps 2013 to create an environment where you may be required to upgrade/buy proper management of the two in the future (so-called Google Plus "Premium" features).
  3. Google Plus itself and the integration of Google Plus into Google Apps is fairly new, not formally part of Google Apps for Business and therefore unsupported at the same level as Google Apps.  You can also expect it to change as the problems outlined here are sorted out over time.
  4. Managing contact information using typical tools (Google Contacts, MS Outlook, OS X and iOS Contacts) and Google Plus Profiles is clumsy, fragmented and requires users to learn a new tool (Google Plus).  Also users are being asked to self-maintain their shared contact information instead of having someone else do it for them.  As a result users may not see sufficient benefits to start using Google Plus.
However, without looking at a bolt-on Google Apps extension for contact sharing, there is no other option other than using Google Plus profiles to share contact information between business employees. 

You may also have other reasons to press your users toward Google Plus such as enhanced employee collaboration that will encourage the adoption of Google Plus Profiles.


Google Contacts does not provide a shared/centralised employee information management tool for your business.  CardDav and other types of contacts integration between Google and applications like OS X's Contacts doesn't propagate the Google Plus Profile information.

If your business can tolerate the risks, you can use Google Plus Profiles to have your employees self-manage, centralise and share their details.  You can use conventional browser access, Android, or the Google Plus app on phones/pads to access the resultant shared contact (profile) information.

Until Google has improved employee/contact management, products like MS-Exchange will continue to be the de facto choice for employee information management for larger businesses.