Originally published on November 27, 2017

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Sections

  1. Collaboration and Teamwork
  2. Communities of Practice (CoPs), Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs), and Discussion Forums
  3. Community Management
  4. Community and Collaboration Tools
  5. Outsourcing the Management of Communities of Practice

— Resources

Section 1: Questions about Collaboration and Teamwork

  1. What is the best way to encourage organizations to collaborate?
  2. How is collaboration important in the workplace?
  3. What motivates you to collaborate with others?
  4. What are some team-building ideas in the workplace?
  5. What are some frameworks, methods or tips that help us to have an effective team discussion?
  6. What are the best workshops for teamwork?
  7. What are some workshop exercises to find opportunities for collaboration?
  8. What collaboration tools should I use to make my virtual team more effective?
  9. How do you manage distributed teams? What methodologies do you use? What tools?
  10. What are examples of extremely simple online collaboration tools?
  11. What is essential for productive teamwork?
  12. How can knowledge be shared using virtual groups?; How do you build people-to-people networks for knowledge sharing using discussion forums?
  13. How do organizations win by working together?

14. Q: What functionality is needed for successful collaboration?

A: Here are useful features:

  • Email is fully integrated with threaded discussions
  1. The ability to post and reply to threaded discussions entirely by email, with no need to visit a web site
  2. The ability for threaded discussion subscribers to receive all posts, a daily digest, or a weekly digest of all posts through email
  • Mobile notifications and RSS feeds are enabled for all tools
  1. Ability to easily include RSS feeds on any site so that they are automatically posted
  2. Eliminates the need for a webmaster to post news items
  3. Reduces the need for email dispatches
  4. Aggregated RSS feed of all blogs to allow anyone to follow all internal blogging activity
  1. Review of existing communities before approving creation of new ones
  2. Master community directory viewable by all employees
  • Opt-in and opt-out
  1. Employees can join or leave any community by clicking on a button without the need for manual action
  2. Employees can subscribe or unsubscribe to distribution lists, newsletters, and other periodicals by clicking on a button
  3. Communities and subscriptions for employees are displayed on their personal profiles
  • Employees can use self-service tools to create their own:
  1. Social Network Profiles
  2. Collaborative Team Spaces
  3. Enterprise Social Network (ESN) Groups
  4. Social Bookmarks and Tags
  5. Blogs
  6. Wikis
  7. Podcasts and Videos
  8. Digital Workplaces
  9. Virtual Meeting Rooms
  10. Mashups

15. Q: What are the barriers to adoption for social business?

A: Social business, including such tools such as blogs, wikis, social networking, social tagging, podcasts, mashups, and RSS, offers great potential for collaboration, but it has to overcome problems:

  • It is not a panacea nor a substitute for other, less exciting, but tried-and-true, knowledge management approaches.
  • Many older people have difficulty adopting it — they do not subscribe to RSS feeds, comment on blogs, or use Facebook. Internal blog, wiki, and RSS usage within large organizations often represents a tiny percentage of the overall population.
  • Many erroneous assumptions are made about the best use of blogs, wikis, and social networking tools. For example, blogs and wikis are not replacements for threaded discussion forums to support communities. They each have very specific applicability and benefits, but many people blithely declare more universal and indistinguishable roles for each.

Social business implementation inside of corporations faces barriers to adoption:

  • Business management may worry about allowing all employees to express themselves and post whatever they want. They are concerned about people posting negative comments, sharing confidential information, and not adhering to standards and guidelines imposed from the top down.
  • Many IT departments don’t get the idea. They are trying to cut costs, consolidate, and survive; social business seems like a toy to them, not a real IT application. They demand proof of ROI before proceeding, want to limit the number of platforms, and want to tightly control the IT environment.
  • Adoption by users may be limited to early adopters, technical enthusiasts, and current users of external social media tools such as Facebook.

Knowledge Management programs should champion collaboration, communities, and connections, using social business as a key part of their toolkits. Emerging tools should be studied, piloted and supported, while understanding that adoption will be slow.

16. Q: In a forum, is it okay to ask the same question that has been asked before?

A: Yes, that is how many people learn something for the first time. In the early days of listservs and bulletin boards, it was common to admonish new participants to search before asking a question, but that is likely to scare them away. Instead, it’s better to link to a previous thread, or to a frequently asked question contained in a list.

17. Q: Are live tweet chats worthwhile?

A. They can be, but eventually, they tend to become repetitive. The tweets during a recurring chat contain many platitudes and retweets, and lack the depth of an asynchronous threaded discussion.

18. Q: What are the benefits of sharing and collaborating?

A: Knowledge increases in multiple ways when it is shared:

  1. More people now know about what was shared, so there is more total knowledge in the world.,
  2. Other people can test, apply and build on what you share to validate, refine, and expand upon it. This strengthens your knowledge, as others can confirm, point out flaws, or improve what you know.
  3. In thinking about how to share an insight, you can improve your understanding and the quality of what you share.
  4. Sharing what you know helps you learn by doing research, synthesizing multiple viewpoints, and crystallizing ideas, thus increasing your knowledge.
  5. When you share, it gets others to also share, which increases the total body of knowledge.

Section 2: Questions about Communities of Practice (CoPs), Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs), and Discussion Forums

  1. What are the characteristics of a community?
  2. Why do people join communities?
  3. Why are communities needed?
  4. What are the best features of current Enterprise Social Networks?
  5. What are the best use cases for Yammer?
  6. What are the three most important things when implementing a social intranet in a company?
  7. What is community participation?
  8. What are typical problems in a community?
  9. How does one create an online forum?
  10. What are some creative and effective ways to build online community websites?
  11. What is the difference between a community and an organization?
  12. What is the difference between a community of practice and a social network?
  13. What makes a great community?
  14. What makes for a successful community of practice?
  15. What does a community need?
  16. How do I form a CoP and avoid the pitfalls?
  17. What does “community” mean to you?
  18. What are discussion forums?
  19. What makes Communities of Practice work?
  20. How do you build and maintain successful communities?
  21. What are some proven practices for online discussion forums?
  22. Is there a manual for the care and feeding of communities?
  23. What ways exist to help CoPs deal with competition and ego among members?
  24. What are some good articles on communities of practice?
  25. What are some useful articles about Communities of Practice?
  26. What can I read about Communities of Practice?
  27. What are the top ten desired elements for community member profiles?
  28. How many opportunities for improvement are missed simply because one employee’s knowledge was never shared?
  29. How can I change the terminology “Communities of Practice” to something else?
  30. How can CoPs create learning environments for educators?
  31. How can narrative techniques help with CoPs in ways that command-and-control approaches can’t?
  32. What are the pros and cons of organizing communities by technical skill versus product group?

33. Q: What are the different types of communities?

A: See Types of Communities & Enterprise Social Network Groups: a TRAIL that COLLECTS and this table that describes three typical types of communities:

34. Q: Communities are often described as groups of like-minded people. Is this accurate?

A: No, they are groups of people who, for a specific subject, share a specialty, role, passion, interest, concern, or a set of problems. Diverse backgrounds and thinking are good for communities, and having only like-minded people is undesirable.

35. Q: Should membership in communities be restricted to only those people in a specific organization?

A: No, they should be open to all, and should span organizational boundaries. The best response to those want to limit community membership is to ask them, “What’s the harm of someone outside your organization joining a community?” The answer should be none, as there multiple benefits to getting more people to ask and answer questions, solve problems, and learn about the community’s topic.

36. Q: Are there good examples of online communities that have been built, are well-developed, and are well-supported?

A: Yes, see:

37. Q: Would you include project teams or operating units as CoPs?

A: Not typically. Communities form around people who share a common specialty, interest, or concern. Project teams and operating units share some characteristics, but they are not self-forming. Communities exist to help their members better do their jobs and to deepen their skills and expertise. Project teams and operating units exist to get work done for the organization.

38. Q: How would you define an active CoP participant?

A: An active participant is one who periodically does one or more of the following:

  1. Starts a new thread in the threaded discussion
  2. Replies to a post in the threaded discussion
  3. Subscribes to and regularly reads the threaded discussion
  4. Gives a presentation to the community
  5. Asks a question during a presentation
  6. Attends and speaks up at a community event
  7. Posts content to the community collaboration space
  8. Contributes content to the community newsletter
  9. Posts and comments on the community blog
  10. Posts and edits content in the community wiki

39. Q: Why should there be at least 100 people in a CoP?

A: In a typical community, 10% or fewer of the members will tend to post, ask questions, present, etc. If a CoP has only 10 members, that means that only one person will be doing most of the activity. In a CoP of 100, you can expect around 10 people to be active, and that is probably the minimum number for success. As the community grows in size, it becomes more likely that experts belong, that questions will be answered, and that a variety of topics will be discussed. Also see this thread.

40. Q. How can noise be reduced in ESN groups?

A: Encourage members to include context and useful information in posts and replies. This means avoiding posts like “Congrats!” or “Thanks!” with no other text. Instead, add some additional text, such as “I was able to use the information you shared in my current project.” Some replies for social feedback are good, but adding details is even better. Use “Like” instead of “Great post!” and reply privately for requests such as being added to a list. Use polls to avoid lots of “Me, too” replies. If your ESN has a praise function, use that to recognize people.

41. Q. How can you get people to use an ESN?

A: Try the following:

  1. Tell people why they should use the ESN and the what’s in it for them: SAFARIS
  2. Make sure that there is a single group for each important subject, that it has an admin who regularly monitors it and ensures that no question is left unanswered
  3. Move some forms of communication from existing channels to ESN only so that people will have to join and follow to keep up with these communications
  4. Ask all subject matter specialists and support personnel who regularly receive queries via email, phone, and IM to redirect them to the ESN and respond there
  5. Recruit key leaders who will lead by example — regularly post, reply, like, praise, and ask for input
  6. Regularly mine ESN for examples of how it is being used productively — share these into a Wins group and refer skeptics there to find success stories told in the voices of actual users

42. Q. We have been tasked with an assignment to do a data analysis of the usage of Yammer. The task is to identify the people who have the most success using Yammer in order to identify best practices for Yammer. When do you need data, metrics, and analytics as opposed to experience, observation, and qualitative analysis?

A: Analyze group activity by reading the posts in the group rather than relying on metrics.

  • Most groups don’t have so much activity that you can’t just read through them.
  • If you are paying attention through email notifications, you will know what is happening on an ongoing basis.
  • Some conclusions must be qualitative:
  1. Was a post a question?
  2. Was it answered or did someone just reply without an answer?
  3. How long have questions been unanswered?

43a. Q: What good articles have you found on communities of practice?

A: See:

  1. Articles and presentations about communities and community management
  2. Introduction to Communities of Practice by Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner
  3. Communities of Practice: The Organizational Frontier by Etienne Wenger and William M. Snyder
  4. Communities for knowledge management by Steve Denning
  5. 10 Critical Success Factors in Building Communities of Practice by Richard McDermott
  6. A bibliography on communities of practice by CPsquare and com-prac
  7. Books for Community Building by Michael Burns
  8. Communities of Practice Resources by Fred Nickols
  9. Caterpillar Communities of Practice: Knowledge is Power by Sue Todd
  10. The Camelot of Collaboration — the case of VAX Notes (PDF) by Patti Anklam

43b. Q: What good books have you found on communities of practice?

A: From this list of books, start with these:

  1. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity by Etienne Wenger
  2. Cultivating Communities of Practice by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder
  3. Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith
  4. CompanyCommand: Unleashing the Power of the Army Profession by Nancy M. Dixon, Nate Allen, Tony Burgess, Pete Kilner and Steve Schweitzer
  5. The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid

Section 3: Questions about Community Management

  1. What are the biggest challenges you face as a community manager? How is community management evolving? What’s the best part of the job?
  2. What are some of the best community management conferences to attend?
  3. What is community management?
  4. Where can I find good online community management courses?
  5. How do I vet the new members in a digital community of professionals?
  6. How can community participation be enhanced?
  7. How do online communities fight spam?
  8. What are the keys to creating a movement, tribe, or social community online?
  9. What are the fundamentals of building a community or culture?
  10. What are the most common mistakes made by community managers?
  11. What are the most essential resources for someone starting communities of practice?
  12. Do Enterprises Have the Patience to Develop Communities?
  13. What are the types of community & online facilitation?
  14. What is community leadership?
  15. Are you able to automate the collection of community metrics?
  16. What are the 10 steps to start a community?
  17. What are good ways to publicize a community?
  18. How can you avoid a CoP mid-life crisis?
  19. How can CoPs be sustained?
  20. Is it standard practice for CoPs to have a core team to perform governance?

21. Q: Where can I find information on CoP metrics?

A: See:

  1. Community of Practice Metrics and Membership, Part 1 — Nov 10, 2008
  2. Community of Practice Metrics and Membership, Part 2 — Nov 11, 2008
  3. Community of Practice Metrics and Membership, Part 3 — Nov 12, 2008
  4. Community of Practice Metrics and Membership, Part 4 — Nov 13, 2008
  5. Community of Practice Metrics and Membership, Part 5 — Performance Management — Nov 14, 2008
  6. Measuring Knowledge Flow within a Community of Practice — Nov 20, 2008
  7. Visualizing Knowledge Flow in a Community — Nov 21, 2008
  8. Additional Community Metrics — Nov 2, 2008

22a. Q: We are looking to implement a more formal strategy and evaluation plan for communities of practice. What do you have in place?

A: At HP, we had a strategy for communities that included:

  • Establish three tiers of communities: professions (the most formal — for our roles such as project manager), solution practice communities (for our service offerings), and specialty forums (for communities of interest).
  • Nurture community leaders with regular con calls for idea sharing.
  • Formally manage threaded discussion forums to avoid redundancy, weed out inactive ones, ensure growth in subscribers and posts, and monitor discussions to ensure that questions are answered.

The measurements established for professions were:

  1. Number of people enrolled
  2. Number of professional certifications
  3. Number of mentors and mentees
  4. Number of white papers published and read
  5. Number of training and community events
  6. Overall health rating (green, yellow, red)

We measured threaded discussion forums as follows:

  1. Number of Forums
  2. Number of Subscriptions
  3. Number of New Threads
  4. Number of Replies
  5. Total Number of Posts
  6. Number of Participants
  7. % of Population Participating
  8. Overall health rating (healthy, in danger, dead)

The moderators of forums in danger were coached on how to get their forums healthy. Dead forums (those with no activity for a month) were given one month to become active, and were deleted after two months of inactivity.

There were related posts by Bill Ives and James Robertson. And here are three replies from members of the SIKM Leaders Community.

From Sanjay Swarup: Here are some of my experiences at Ford Motor Company where I supported and managed 54 CoPs:

  1. For any CoP to survive/thrive, the role of an active executive sponsor is vital. Minimum monthly CoP health checks are a must, as is providing timely rewards and recognition, especially in the presence of peers of the CoP members.
  2. A community administrator/gatekeeper needs to be a person who is active in the community, well respected by community members, and considered a subject matter expert. Managers typically did not make good gatekeepers since they were overwhelmed by other responsibilities.
  3. A community focal point/contact at each site/location must also be active in the community and considered a subject matter expert.
  4. Establishing metrics in the knowledge input form is critical. Ideally, metrics should be quantitative; however, qualitative metrics are acceptable. A metrics input field needs to be mandatory.
  5. Some of the key reasons why I had to close down some CoPs:
  • The executive sponsor was inactive.
  • Users did not see the value of the knowledge being shared.
  • CoP usage was not integrated into the corporate procedures, and CoP performance metrics were not tied to individual performance goals.

From Katrina Pugh: I agree with the regular meeting and tiers. Here are the BKMs (best known methods) we’ve generated over the last year of our CoP program:

  1. Requires role clarity for the community, and for community members and leaders. (Best in the form of a charter).
  2. Leadership and facilitation are keys. Need a networker between community meetings and team leads to represent stakeholders (e.g., one person from business unit, one person from geography).
  3. CoPs are considered effective and value-added only when they become self-managed by the practitioners (e.g., practitioners contribute to agenda, lead discussion topics and working groups).
  4. Need to establish a rapport explicitly, by using facilitation techniques and offline meetings or check-ins with participants. Expect to storm before you norm!
  5. Must have ground rules (e.g., meetings, forums, email).
  6. Need a method for new member on-boarding (e.g., what’s the CoP charter, how to get onto the workspace, when meetings take place, expectations of participants).
  7. Communities have a predictable lifecycle. Need to measure and continuously improve (e.g., measuring membership, participation in meetings, hits, documents shared, productivity of working groups).
  8. Use technology effectively — must be easy to integrate into life (e.g., effective use of workspace, threaded discussion, Live Meeting tapes, wikis).
  9. Community must get and give recognition (e.g., sponsors visible, participants publicly recognized, good or improved measures reported).

From Andrew Gent: You may find this presentation interesting — it was given at this year’s IAI Summit by Andrew Hinton. The topic is “Architectures for Conversation: What Communities of Practice Can Mean for Information Architecture (IA).” The end of the presentation is a little off-topic — since it is specific to IA — but the lead-up is a fascinating perspective on communities, organic vs. hierarchical structures, etc. To those who have been involved in CoPs for a while, there is probably nothing earth-shattering here, but he covers the territory with a sense of panache that catches the audience’s attention and gets the message across to non-KMers.

Some excerpts:

  • Conversation is the engine of knowledge (page 20)
  • But the truth is, the looser organic network has always been where Knowledge & Innovation occur (page 33)
  • A community of practice is in a sense a hybrid pattern — it’s informal, emergent, just like a general social network, but it has a center of gravity — the domain — that acts loosely as an organizing principle (page 64)

One caveat: the presentation is deceptively long (118 pages in PDF), but don’t be intimidated. The length is because each stage of the slide builds comes out as a separate page, so many individual slides take up 4–5 pages in the PDF file. Also, make sure you increase the window so you see both the slides and notes — Andrew Hinton was very thorough in including the text of his talk in the notes.

22b. Q: Are you able to automate the collection of this data?

A: We used UBB.threads for our threaded discussion forums. Data was generated on the server on which it ran, and we mined this data monthly. Collection of the data was automated, but production of the monthly reports involved manual effort. We moved most of it to take advantage of lower-cost resources.

23. Q: We are planning an internal Community Development Conference. In preparation for the conference we will survey our community leaders to determine what they want in a conference. The survey will give us information to use in planning conference activities. The survey will also help community leaders recognize the value of communities to the corporation. What questions should we ask our community leaders in preparation for our conference?

A: Bruce Karney developed a survey which he sent to community leaders. Bruce summarized the results of the survey:

The “most valuable” option was a world-wide face to face meeting, with a world-wide conference call placing second. When asked which option had the highest ROI, the order was reversed, with the world-wide con call taking first place and the world-wide face-to-face meeting coming in second. Forums and distribution lists were rated as being equal in value, and both were significantly less valuable and lower in ROI than meetings and phone calls.

See the actual Community Managers Survey. Here are two additional answers from two thought leaders on communities of practice.

From John D. Smith: I would suggest an open-ended question along the lines of: ‘During the past year or so, what has been the most useful or inspiring thing for you as a community leader?’ We’re in the midst of a ‘dissertation fest’ in CPsquare, where Tony Burgess of Company Command used more elaborate means to find the ‘becoming stories’ of Company Command leaders. He got very useful answers, it seems to me.

From Richard McDermott: There are several ways to approach this. The simplest would, of course, be to ask for examples of value. I like to think of these as stories with numbers. The numbers do two things: 1) they can be impressive 2) they help calibrate the value of communities and their potential role. (See the articles listed below for more on measurement.) Whatever else you do, this is probably good to include.

An interesting, alternate approach would be to send out a survey to community leaders and/or members. I served as the Subject Matter Expert for a global study of community impact (the largest, we think, that has been done). Either using our survey or a customized version, you could assess: 1) the health of communities 2) factors that contribute to community impact on individual and organizational performance. I suspect that this would be consistent with our findings, but there could be some interesting twists for your organization.

With this approach leaders could walk into the conference with the results of the assessment of the health and value of their communities (as seen by community members). This could give you a bit of grit to work with in the conference and might make it more than a conceptual discussion of issues and ideas for action.

Here is the article on the results of our study. Here are two other relevant articles:

  • Measuring the impact of communities: How to draw meaning from measures of communities of practice — Building communities of practice seems like a smart way to encourage collaboration across organizational lines. But what happens when you need to show proof that the communities are working and are worth the investment? In this article, Richard McDermott, community of practice expert, explains how to make sense of a chain of community activities, outcomes and value in the language of the business. Includes a community of practice measurement framework, a case study from Shell, and a set of sample assessment interview questions.
  • Building healthy communities — Richard McDermott presents the results of an in-depth study into the key factors behind the successes — and failures — of communities of practice.

Section 4: Questions about Community and Collaboration Tools

  1. Which papers should you read in the world of Enterprise 2.0?
  2. Are there any Web 2.0 reading lists?
  3. What actions are needed for Enterprise 2.0 and what is the Tools for Communities Wiki?
  4. Is there a conference on communities & technologies?
  5. How can you combine wikis and forums?
  6. Is there a Web 2.0 slideshow?
  7. How can Web 2.0 be used for KM?
  8. What is the difference between forums, blogs, and social networks?
  9. Which Web-Conferencing Solution Is Right for Your Company?

10. Q: What articles exist for community and collaboration tools?

A: See:

  1. Webinars, conference calls, videos, podcasts, and recordings
  2. Virtual Meeting Rooms, Web/Video/Audio Conferencing, and Telepresence
  3. Team Spaces for Collaboration Using SharePoint or Other Platforms
  4. Threaded Discussions and Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs)
  5. Expertise Locators and Ask the Expert
  6. Metadata and Tags
  7. Blogs and Blogging
  8. Wikis
  9. Podcasts and Videos
  10. Syndication, Aggregation, and Subscription Management Systems
  11. Social Software and Social Media
  12. Social Networking Tools at HP
  13. Social Networking Tools
  14. Community of Practice Tools: e-SCENT-ials

11a. Q: What is the difference between a blog and a forum?

A: A blog is a one-to-many form of communication, usually read by visiting the web site or through an RSS feed reader. It is well-suited to supporting personal expression, news updates, personal note taking or journal writing, links between the blogs of multiple bloggers, and comments from blog readers.

A forum is threaded discussion, also known as a bulletin board or listserv, which is a many-to-many form of communication. It is well-suited to supporting a community of practice or a community of interest. Typically, forums can be used by visiting the web site or entirely by email, and in some cases, read through an RSS feed reader. The email option makes them particularly popular.

Blogs

Blogs are web sites where entries are made (such as in a journal or diary) and displayed in reverse chronological order. They often provide commentary or news on a particular subject. Some function as personal online diaries or logbooks. Blogs combine text, images, and links to other blogs and web sites. They typically provide archives in calendar form, local search, syndication feeds, reader comment posting, trackback links from other blogs, blogroll links to other recommended blogs, and categories of entries tagged for retrieval by topic. They are best used to post regular updates, solicit comments, and take advantage of syndication capability.

Blogs are a way of empowering users to express their ideas, record their thinking, and link to others who are doing the same. Organizations can use blogs to communicate, solicit comments, and engage in online conversations. Blogs serve as a good archive of communications, since each entry is stored by date, and it is possible to search just within a specific blog to find previous posts.

Forums

Forums provide for carrying on discussions among subscribers on a specific subject, including online and email posts and replies, searchable archives, and discussions grouped by threads to show the complete history on each topic. They are best used to disseminate information, ask and answer questions, and share insights.

Forums provide benefits to their subscribers and to the organization. They enable subscribers to learn from other members; share new ideas, lessons learned, proven practices, insights, and practical suggestions; reuse solutions through asking and answering questions, applying shared insights, and retrieving posted material; collaborate through conversations and interactions; and innovate through brainstorming, building on each other’s ideas, and keeping informed on emerging developments.

The organization benefits by having a reliable place where people with questions and problems can be directed to get answers and solutions, a searchable archive of the discussions, and a way for people to learn about their specialty and to develop in it. The broader the membership in a forum, the greater the benefit to the organization. This is due to having the widest possible range of perspectives, the greatest possible number of people to answer questions and solve problems, and greater leverage of all knowledge shared.

Providing a way for questions to be asked and answers to be supplied is a key function of forums. Subscribers post questions such as “has anyone done this before?”, “does anyone know how to do this?”, and “where can I find this?”, and other subscribers respond with answers, suggestions, and pointers to more information.

Another use of forums is sharing insights, techniques, and innovations with community members. Posting a tip on how a problem was solved, a customer was helped, or a breakthrough was achieved allows many others to reuse that knowledge in other contexts.

When used in conjunction with community events, repository contributions, and published articles, forums allow communities to reflect on the events, provide feedback on the contributions, and debate ideas in the articles. This extends the useful life of events, publicizes submitted content, and stimulates the lively exchange of ideas.

11b. Q: Whether you call them blogs or discussion forums, they are essentially tools which enable a conversation. For example, how about if one were to use a community blog — a scenario where community folks can write to a blog and share their thoughts, primarily through posts and comments? Would this serve the same purpose?

A: Community blogs can be made to work, but they are less well-suited to supporting conversation in a community than a threaded discussion forum. Reasons for this include:

  • Comments to blogs typically must be posted by visiting the blog web site, entering information into a form, and submitting it. Comments to forums typically can be posted either online or by replying to an email message, which is easier and can be done even when not connected to the network through the use of an email client in offline mode.
  • Once submitted, comments to blogs may need to wait for approval before appearing on the blog (often due to the need to remove spam). Unless a forum is being tightly moderated, all posts and replies appear automatically and immediately.
  • Although it is possible to monitor a blog through email, this is less common than using an RSS feed reader. Forums can be monitored through email, and this allows them to reach a wider audience automatically, without the need to visit a web site or check an RSS reader.
  • Although it is possible to monitor comments posted to a blog through email or an RSS reader, many subscribers will only see the main posts and not the comments. Forums treat all posts and replies in the same way, and thus the full discussion will reach most subscribers.
  • If a blog is set up by one or a few main bloggers, it may be viewed by its readers as the voice of those few people, rather than of an entire community. Unless a forum is tightly moderated, it is usually viewed as representing the voices of all of its members.
  • If a blog is set up for multiple bloggers, it may not be clear who has posted each entry. A forum makes the identity of the poster more obvious.
  • Blogs are relatively new, and not everyone yet knows how to best follow them. Listservs have been around for a long time, and more people are familiar with reading and replying to posts using email.
  • Blogs may not provide an easy way to share files and collaborate in other ways besides conversation. Forums based on tools such as Groups.io can have associated photos, links, databases, polls, and calendars for the use of the community.

If a community is committed to making a blog support conversation, it can be made to work.

12. Q: How can collaboration tools be used for corporate marketing?

A: Using collaboration tools often associated with knowledge management, corporate marketing can better engage with both employees and customers. Here are ten ways to do so:

1. Threaded discussions: forums for carrying on discussions among subscribers on a specific subject, including online and email posts and replies, searchable archives, and discussions grouped by threads to show the complete history on each topic

  • Internal: Allow employees to collaborate with one another, ask and answer questions, and share information.
  • External: Encourage customers to help one another, suggest products and services, and engage with each other. Example: HP IT resource center forums

2. Social software: a range of tools that facilitate social networking, typically personal web pages including bios, interests, links, photos, videos, personal networks, posts, and comments; web and mobile applications used to turn communication into interactive dialogue, sharing, and assistance

  • Internal: Allow employees to have similar functionality to what they are used to externally. Encourage them to gain experience in using these tools.
  • External: Encourage customers to build networks built on products and services, interests, preferences, etc. Example: Facebook

3. Bookmarks and tags: information about information — data fields added to documents, web sites, files, or lists which allow related items to be listed, searched for, navigated to, syndicated, and collected

  • Internal: Allow employees to bookmark their favorite sites.
  • External: Encourage customers to tag their favorite company-related sites. Example: del.icio.us

4. Community spaces: Collaboration sites to share files, hold meetings, conduct polls, and maintain lists

  • Internal: Allow employees to collaborate on topics of interest.
  • External: Encourage customers to collaborate on company-related topics. Example: Groups.io

5. Portals: Unified user access interfaces and repositories of documents and information

  • Internal: Allow employees to interact with a single site which integrates content from multiple sources.
  • External: Encourage customers to visit a single site for all of their support needs. Example: HP Customer Support

6. Wikis: Web pages which can be edited by any user for interactive content development by multiple people

  • Internal: Allow employees to create and collaboratively edit their own content pages.
  • External: Encourage customers to collaboratively edit community pages. Example: IBM Public Wikis

7. Webcasts and webinars: Web-based broadcasts of video, audio, and slides; allow questions to be entered anonymously

  • Internal: Communicate useful marketing information to employees to help them better do their jobs.
  • External: Communicate useful marketing information to customers to help them better understand company offerings. Example: Deloitte Dbriefs Webcasts

8. Blogs: Web logs to post news updates, solicit comments, and take advantage of RSS syndication capability

  • Internal: Give employees a voice, solicit their inputs and suggestions, and make executives more approachable and real.
  • External: Communicate useful information to customers with a personal face to build credibility and increase engagement. Example: HPE blogs

9. Podcasts: Recorded broadcasts available on demand or by subscription for those who prefer audio, like to listen while performing other tasks, or who are not usually connected to the network and subscribe for automatic downloads of the broadcasts through RSS syndication

  • Internal: Allow employees to receive communications in a way which is more convenient for them.
  • External: Encourage customers to subscribe to receive audio communications on a regular basis. Example: Deloitte Press Room podcasts

10. Videos: Recorded videos available on demand for those who prefer video, when there is important visual content, or for special occasions

  • Internal: Allow employees to record and upload their own videos to share information, create excitement, and emulate YouTube.
  • External: Encourage customers to view product and service videos to learn more about offerings in an appealing way. Example: HPE Video Gallery

13. Q: What are some typical problems in how people post to threaded discussion forums?

A: Here are three problems along with recommended solutions:

  1. Replying to posts or digests and not deleting the original text. When replying to a post, include just the text you wish to quote in response, and delete the rest. This will prevent large amounts of the forum from being cluttered with redundant text, and will make it easy to distinguish between new and old posts.
  2. Sending messages intended for one person to the whole list, or sending messages to a few people which should be sent to the whole list. If you are replying to one member of the forum with a message intended just for them, do it in a separate email directed to that person only. Conversely, if you have a question or comment of general applicability, don’t send it to a small subset of the members. Post it to the forum so that all can learn from it and respond to it.
  3. Including long URLs which wrap across lines and thus may not work when the recipient attempts to click on the link. If the URL you wish to include is long, convert it to a short one using a service such as TinyURL. If you are including a link to a book on Amazon.com, remove the extra text and use just the product number. For example, “https://www.amazon.com/BIONIC-eTeamwork-Jaclyn-Kostner/dp/0793148340/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1511787629&sr=1-1&keywords=bionic+eteamwork" can be reduced to “http://www.amazon.com/dp/0793148340" — everything else can be deleted.

14. Q: What are the benefits of participating in community threaded discussions?

A: The benefit to participating is primarily to the subscribers, and secondarily to the organization. Threaded discussions enable subscribers to:

  1. Share new ideas, lessons learned, proven practices, insights, and practical suggestions
  2. Innovate through brainstorming, building on each other’s ideas, and keeping informed on emerging developments
  3. Reuse solutions through asking and answering questions, applying shared insights, and retrieving posted material
  4. Collaborate through conversations and interactions
  5. Learn from other members

The organization benefits by having:

  1. A reliable place where people with questions and problems can be directed to get answers and solutions
  2. A searchable archive of the discussions
  3. A way for people to learn about their interest and develop in their specialty

As more people subscribe to threaded discussions, greater benefits result. This is due to having:

  1. The widest possible range of perspectives
  2. The greatest possible number of people to answer questions and solve problems
  3. Greater leverage of all knowledge shared

15. Q: How can email be used with online discussions?

A: Email is the holy grail for threaded discussions. It can help increase participation.

Threaded discussions (also known as discussion boards, bulletin boards, listservs, and discussion forums) have been around for over 25 years. VAX Notes conferences were in use at Digital Equipment Corporation in the 1980s. Tools publicly available on the Internet, such as Groups.io and Google Groups, allow community members to post and reply online or by email, and to read online, by email, or by RSS feed. This allows members to choose the communication channel they prefer.

Inside of corporations, this functionality is available much less frequently. Many threaded discussion tools implemented inside a corporate firewall require community members to post online. Such tools may offer email alerts, but these alerts link to a web site where posts must be made. By not offering users a way of posting and replying entirely by email, community participation is significantly curtailed.

Email is the killer app for communication. Although people frequently lament that they receive too much email, it is the only application that can be relied on for communicating with most corporate users. The participation rate in threaded discussions can be maximized by taking advantage of this fact. Threaded discussions should have email fully integrated so that community members can read, post, and reply to discussions entirely by email, without having to be connected to the Internet or their corporate intranet, and without having to visit a web site.

At HP, we used a tool called UBB.threads which did not have email functionality out of the box. Our initial implementation of HP Forums, using this tool, required users to visit an intranet site in order to post or reply to a thread. Adoption of this tool was limited until we added code to fully integrate email posting and replying. Once this was done, adoption increased significantly.

When acquiring or implementing threaded discussions to support communities of practice, include a requirement for full email integration, not just email alerts. Digest options and RSS feeds are also very useful.

Ensure that threaded discussions include the following capabilities:

  • The ability to post and reply to threaded discussions entirely by email, with no need to visit a web site
  • The ability for threaded discussion subscribers to receive all posts, a daily digest, or a weekly digest of all posts through email
  • The ability to subscribe to read all posts and replies using an RSS feed reader

16. Q: What are the disadvantages of email compared to enterprise social networks (ESNs)?

From the #ESNchat on April 16, 2015 — Email: Friend or Foe?

How to handle every ESN’s biggest frenemy, the organizational email system.

Q1: What are the biggest problems you face from email, and barriers to your ESN replacing it?

A1: Ongoing use of email for things ESNs do better: Share, Ask, Find, Answer, Recognize, Inform, Suggest — despite ESN being better. Fragmentation into different email threads, forwarding to unknowns, different people on different threads, out-of-sync replies. Email not open or transparent, not all replies together, not available for public reference, doesn’t reach those you don’t know.

Q2: What about Email as friend: How do you use email to connect with and engage your members?

A2: Integration of ESN with email can make it easier for some to use, provide familiar UI, not be 1 more thing to have to go visit.

Q3: What are your strategies for encouraging members to move away from email communication and into your ESN?

A3: Show what each is best used for: ESN: SAFARIS, email: private comms; Show how ESN can be used with email to get best of both. Move some forms of communication from email channels to ESN only; if you can only get updates in ESN, you will join & may reply. Ask all SMEs, support staff. et al. who regularly receive queries via email to redirect them to ESN and then respond only there.

Q4: What is your most persuasive argument for someone addicted to email about the benefits of using your ESN?

A4: The last time you needed to ask a question, find a resource, or share useful information, did you send email? Did it work well? Do you know everyone who might be able to help you or benefit from what you know? If not, your email may not reach best people. How much time do you spend sending, reading, replying & trying to find email messages in order to ask, find, share? ESNs allow everyone to see useful answers, information, discussions & participants, not just the sender & selected recipients.

Q5: Knowing what you know, do you ever see your ESN replacing email internally? Why or why not?

A5: No, email still has a use. We just want people to use email only for what email does best & use ESNs for what ESNs do best. If you tell people you want to replace email, they will resist. If you tell them to use ESN for what it does best -> less scary.

Q6: What would it take for email & your ESN to coexist effectively — or what does the ultimate single platform solution look like?

A6: Define uses for both; fully integrate email into ESN; allow people to use ESN in the ways they prefer, e.g., entirely via email.

17. Q. When should you use blogs, threaded discussions, ideation systems, ESNs, wikis, Q&A systems, videos, podcasts, profiles, and other social software tools?

  1. Threaded discussions: Ask and answer questions, and share information
  2. Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs): Share, Ask, Find, Answer, Recognize, Inform, and Suggest
  3. Bookmarks and tags: Save links to useful sites and content, add tags to group and classify the content, and reuse the links and tags offered by others.
  4. Team spaces: Collaborate on work, share files, schedule, and plan
  5. Wikis: Create and collaboratively edit content
  6. Web conferencing: Interact virtually, share presentations and screens, and talk and see people in remote locations
  7. Blogs: For posting viewpoints, sharing communiques and newsletters, and working out loud
  8. Podcasts: Receive recorded communications in a way which is more convenient, allowing listening while working, commuting, running, walking, etc.
  9. Videos: Record, collect, and upload videos to share information, create excitement, and emulate YouTube; create video stories and instruction; and like, comment on, tag, rate, and share videos
  10. Instant messaging and group chat: Easily hold discussions that are persistent and readily searchable
  11. File sharing: Enable large files to be centrally stored and easily shared between multiple users so that they are secure, accessible, backed up, and don’t have to be sent as email attachments
  12. ESN chats: Threaded discussions in real time, e.g., while an event is occurring, for note-taking, interacting with others at the event, and sharing with those not there
  13. Social network profiles: Publish biographies, personal statements, links, interests, expertise, and experience; and link to people who are acquainted or connected as friends, business contacts, or colleagues
  14. Idea management and ideation systems: Submit suggestions, track implementation progress, and work with others to innovate and invent
  15. Q&A systems: Ask questions, receive answers, and provide answers to the questions of others

18. Q. How can the use of collaboration tools be increased?

A: When email was introduced, its adoption was increased through these steps:

  • It was required as the standard way of communicating in writing.
  • It replaced previous modes of communication, for example, interoffice memos.
  • The senior leaders used it, and expected others to use it; although they may have had their administrative assistants actually using the tool, it appeared to everyone else that they were using it.

Use of collaboration tool needs to follow a similar path:

  • It should be required as the standard way of sharing, asking, finding, answering, recognizing, informing, and suggesting.
  • It should replace previous modes of doing these tasks, for example, using email to ask a question.
  • The senior leaders need to use collaboration tools and expect others to do the same; although they may get help in actually using the tools.

Section 5: Outsourcing the Management of Communities of Practice

Q: Does anyone have experience with outsourcing community maintenance and facilitation?

Q1 from Johannes Schunter <johannes.schunter@undp.org> in KM4dev:

Communities of Practice established in context of projects often suffer from a sustainability issue. Once the assigned project staff ends her/his term, the established community is in danger of dying again.

One idea which came up when discussing this internally, is to outsource the basic facilitation functions of the community (granting access to web space and e-network, serving as help desk for questions, referring inquiries to focal points within the community, sending major announcements and distributing key material) to a third party.

Does anyone of you have experience with outsourcing CoP maintenance/facilitation? Do you know any service providers which specialize in this? What other mechanisms did you find useful in ensuring managerial sustainability of communities over time?

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A1 from Daan Boom <daanboom@gmail.com>

In previous organizations I worked with, the moderation of a CoP was outsourced to external consultants. It’s very doable. One was assigned to do basic editorial things, post news and background materials and respond to technical questions (web-master) and another one as subject matter expert who, in collaboration with the organizational unit/ staff responsible for the CoP, triggered discussion and debate and responded to ‘content’ questions. In a few instances the functionality of the CoP was grabbed from the Net and in another case the organizational IT functionalities were sufficient (but not the HRM capacity to moderate).

I don’t think it is sensible to mention organizations who can do the ‘IT’ bit because there are so many who provide this kind of services free and for money, based upon your requirements. Moderation of the CoP can be secured through a consultant recruitment process. This can be quite critical to find someone who understands CoPs, moderate (e)-discussion, subject matter expertise, can create enthusiasm, and so forth. This kind of expertise is often not part of the offering of an IT outsourcer but maybe you are lucky with another response from the KM4Dev community.

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A2 from Riff Fullan <riff.fullan@helvetas.org>

Another possibility which I quite like is to think about continued facilitation from within the community itself. If there is already enthusiasm and engagement, then the main challenges are:

  • identifying a partner who is interested in and has the capacity to facilitate well
  • avoiding creation of competition/jealousy among partners (this can be tricky, but with transparent processes can be managed)

I think if you have a CoP that is going well and is well-facilitated, then building in a transition where the existing facilitator can work with an incoming facilitator over a short time (depends on the context, level of activity, etc., but maybe over one or several months) can help to ensure continuity and relevant capacity is there. The key thing for me is to the extent that facilitation can come from within the community, it will be more likely to be sustainable and there is already familiarity on both sides (i.e. facilitator and community), which is a good thing.

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A3 from Christina Merl <cm@christinamerl.com>

I’ve faced a similar situation and agree that you can best achieve sustainability of a CoP if facilitation comes from within, at least partly. So, a combination of outsourcing to a CoP consultant who has CoP background and experience (!) and having facilitation from within by respected community members may indeed be most fruitful. Both parties then can rely on each other and will be respected by members. You can best avoid a rather dangerous situation of competitiveness/jealousy among CoP members if facilitation from within comes voluntarily. Experience has shown that this may take time and careful nurturing. I’m not sure if it works if you just appoint facilitation from within.

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A4 from Nancy White <nancyw@fullcirc.com>

I’ll chime in that this is doable and communities do it. For me, there are some strategic questions:

  • What level of trust will members feel about an outside community facilitator? Will this enliven, or dampen the communities interactions and learning?
  • How much subject matter is needed? What I observe is that in some communities, deep knowledge is required. In others, the skill of noticing and connecting members and information is more important than deep SM expertise.
  • How much internal knowledge of the community is required to be effective — this is both a matter in choosing internal or outsourced, but also in terms of the time it takes for the facilitator to get up to speed. More often, the knowledge of how the organization works (if a community is internal) is really subtle but critical. Again, however, the outside perspective may find ways to avoid the org pitfalls and build on strengths. This is when outsiders are useful — they hold up a new “mirror” for the community to see itself in a new way and this can be energizing. (Or fully kill the community!)

So for me, it is not a matter of “should we outsource or not” but “where is this community in its life cycle, what are its needs and what sort of facilitation is needed now and going forward.

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A5 from John Gray <john@framework.org.uk>

Yes, I have experience of being the external facilitator. The context was a UK community-based conflict resolution service, which recruited volunteer mediators to mediate conflicts between households over issues such as noise, children’s behaviour, boundaries and lifestyles.

The CoP was a sub-group of these mediators who acted as peer mentors to other volunteer mediators within the service. The intentions were: to strengthen skills and expertise within the whole mediator team; to provide additional volunteer developmental opportunities; and to strengthen the service’s offer of support and supervision to the mediators.

I trained the CoP members in peer mentoring. I then facilitated their CoP over a period of several months; I also provided 1–2–1 supervision to the mentors to support them in their practice.

Reflecting on the experience in the light of your questions, Johannes:

Without an external facilitator, I am sure the initiative would have failed. This was not just because of the value of having someone paid to give time, attention (holding the vision) and commitment to making the CoP work. The organisation was very small, and the manager was distracted by illness and other organisational difficulties, so no-one else had a priority of making sure the CoP succeed.

The CoP members, in my view, didn’t have the capacity to sustain the CoP themselves. That sounds like a negative judgment; I mean that their time and energy went into mediating and mentoring, and I didn’t get the sense that anyone was putting themselves forward to take on the facilitation. Perhaps I should have explored this further with them, and used some of the time available to do capacity building. They were also affected by the difficulties elsewhere in the organisation, so morale and commitment for some of them was quite low. As an organisational consultant, it is not unfamiliar for me to yearn to work at a level above the level at which I have been invited in to the organisation!, and here was another example.

If an external facilitator is used, I would say that having a named internal person is also really important: not to act as a facilitator, and perhaps not even to be a member of the CoP, but who: has a care for the success of the CoP, has transparent means of hearing the generic learning emerging from the CoP, and who has time and skills to link the CoP into the organisation’s learning strategy (a two-way link) and to ensure the CoP takes its proper place within the vie d’organisation.

A second experience, perhaps relevant to your question, is facilitating an action learning set earlier this year. Though the content of each set was deliberately left to the participants to structure according to their learning needs, I had a holding role: I provided resource materials and links, held a vision of the overall progress of the set, brought in process observations where I thought they might be helpful, and introduced a framework for self- and peer-assessment at the end of the set. That left the participants freer to build their community and shape their learning experience; I hope to repeat the process within a Action Learning Set on The Learning Organisation early in 2009.

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Q2 from Josien Kapma <josienmkapma@yahoo.co.uk>

Could a small business, under the flag of KM4dev / D-groups, sell this service to communities, and thus fund part of their own life?

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A6 from Carl Jackson <C.Jackson@ids.ac.uk>

I like Nancy’s point about paying attention to where the CoP is at in its life cycle.

As someone who once played the role of outsourced facilitator it was crucial for my initial credibility to have been there at the beginning of the life cycle — in some ways the facilitation was never outsourced, it was always being done in partnership with another organisation as this was felt to be helpful to broaden the CoP’s potential membership.

However, the issue of succession was not solved by having an external facilitator. As the CoP lived on (and is now almost 10 years old) it was necessary to plan for succession within the outsource organisation! The succession also proved to be a strength as it enabled the core skills of the facilitation function to change to respond to the changing needs of the CoP itself.

So perhaps one of the keys is to build capacity to change (resilience) into the CoP and its facilitation through horizon scanning, member feedback, mentoring future facilitators etc.

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A7 from Daan Boom <daanboom@gmail.com>

Agree with the observation that you need to look at the maturity level and objective of the Community. Different models can apply where you can either have a basic facilitator to manage the in-and outflow of communications and perhaps based upon the collected wisdom of its members built or contribute to topic knowledge bases. That general facilitator can be backed by a ‘expert’, for expert advice or views. Does this answer your 2nd bullet?

Sometimes CoP members want to see or know who is the contributor to assess the value of a contribution. This perhaps answers your first bullet-point: If an assigned expert is moderating a community I don’t see any major problems, I think even that it could enlighten the discussion, but it depends very much on the quality of the moderator. Not only his subject matter expertise but also his/her social skills.

It can be acknowledged that many communities works fine without any specific formal moderation. KM4D is a good example but my college community too. I even don’t think of these communities in infant or maturity levels. It works for me as sounding board for thoughts and questions and I’m very grateful for the few who draft knowledge solutions in the wiki. And I can name more examples, even a successful CoP on Content Management where you have to pay a minimal CoP membership fee to get access and benefit from the wisdom of many.

So indeed look very careful to the objectives of a CoP what it is you want to achieve and experiment with a few proven models to determine the sort of facilitation.

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A8 from Damir Simunic <damir.simunic@gmail.com>

The question about the community life cycle makes sense, however at a much higher, strategic level; it comes before the decision whether to outsource or not the administrative process.

In my view, the key question is what parts of the community administration process can be commoditized?

Seeing the data for a few thousand CoPs and mailing lists, I can testify to the fact that administration is critical to sustainability — regardless of community’s purpose, strategy, topic, size, or traffic. Remove administrative functions and a community falters in a short time — probably in the same way a physical organization would stop functioning if you fired all janitors, receptionists, electricians, security guards, etc.

Over the past few weeks I’ve had a lot of discussions with a number of organizations on this subject, and all agree administration is critical to ensure sustainability of valuable communities beyond the initial project budget. Yet, no organization in international development can cost-effectively do it for own needs. As part of my job, I’ve had many opportunities to collaborate with a number of competent people providing administration and facilitation for diverse communities. So far, most of these connections were serendipitous, in a sense that the person was “just there” at the right time and was willing to take over the work, oftentimes beyond the job description. Yet, people move on and leave a hole behind that so far many groups have not been able to fill — at least not in a systematic and predictable way.

My conclusion is that the community administration process must be commoditized. Once commoditized, certain parts of the process can be implemented into software itself, and certain parts could in time integrate into staff training processes. Probably one or two independent organizations could fund part of their existence from offering such services on a large scale as Josien suggested.

This approach is not opposing the “promote within” view of self-sustainable communities, nor does it obviate the need for experienced facilitators/consultants. Even if one promotes a participant to facilitate (when it makes sense), such move would relate to subject- matter knowledge others outlined; equally, an experienced outsider-facilitator’s time is much better spent focusing on the subject matter, stimulating discussion and making connections, than on administering logins and other process related-matters. Yet, we don’t expect that participant or a facilitator to pay for hosting and maintain the software, right? Someone will still have to perform these functions (many of which are built into self-service platforms, or are taught in standard IT staff training courses) — in the same manner one can implement community administration as well, as all three are prerequisites for virtual community sustenance.

Would love to hear from others what challenges you see in commoditizing community administration? As a first step — for the purpose of this discussion — would it make sense to differentiate between community administration and facilitation?

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A9 from Nancy White <nancyw@fullcirc.com>

I think it makes a good deal of sense to identify the range of activities that support distributed CoPs. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • facilitation (group process, social and content related — events, etc. Can be very diverse)
  • technology stewardship (selection, deployment and useful practices in the tech a community uses, including noticing and spread good practices (can be from simple to very complicated. If simple, probably lumped into administration)
  • administration (membership, help, cleaning up things, etc.)

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A10 from Damir Simunic <damir.simunic@gmail.com>

I like how you nicely defined the three areas of activities. Do you feel the list is already in the increasing order of ‘commoditization potential’, or do we maybe need to swap the technology stewardship and administration in the list to make it in the proper order?

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A11 from Tony Pryor <TPryor@irgltd.com>

I really do like the three categories, and there are a number of examples of suboptimal communities where the three activities are either poorly understood, or where one person thinks he/she can do all three simultaneously. I think there may be a fourth, perhaps, which is more content/outcome oriented.

The other three require someone who knows either a lot about the technology being used to support collaboration, or someone steeped in skills in promoting community behavior. But for those instances where having a community, and increasing collaboration are not ends in themselves, it seems to me there is a fourth function that is equated to the subject matter/end purpose of the community.

In a strict sense, CoPs are supposed to be self-defining, and with a purpose that can evolve, etc. But in the real world, (and in the world of Xerox and BP where CoPs initially evolved) CoPs can help to serve “corporate” or larger ends. The purpose of a CoP for BP wasn’t just to have an escape valve for all petroleum engineers dispersed across the North Sea, but rather to optimize production by harnessing that dispersed knowledge. Likewise, when a community is organized to help improve rice research and extension, the “nuggets” that come out of that community in principle should help meet that overall objective, not just improve the skills of dispersed researchers for their own sake.

I’ve heard this called “communities of purpose”, and I think they actually are more important developmentally than we often give credit to in this list. Which means that optimally there is a fourth function which is as synthesizer/outcome optimizer, whose job it is to draw out nuggets of use beyond just the people talking, who help to gently channel conversation to be more useful to the broader objective. These folk (“moderators?”) are tasked with making the whole much greater, and longer lived, than just the sum of the parts. Most important these folk need to be subject matter folk, not collaboration specialists or application wonks. They COULD be wrapped up in only one person, but that’s unlikely.

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A12 from Satish Vangal <satish.vangal@undp.org>

Picture this — a young woman in a village in Southern India whose parents sell vegetables from the roadside gets up every morning, takes a bus for an hour and comes to a small office in the nearest town. She sits in front of a computer (with a broadband connection) — and begins dealing with pending new member requests to a Community of Practice. A year ago, she had never touched a computer; now she sits confidently in front of a LYRIS / DGroups list admin screen and sends new members welcome messages. She looks at a recently completed discussion thread on Outsourcing Management Communities of Practice, and compiles all the responses into a single page on a MediaWiki platform, documenting the country of origin of each contributor, and creating a Google map of the discussion, leaving a space for the Discussion Summary to be filled in by the network member who started the discussion.

This is not just a scene inside my head! This is how our virtual Management Practice communities in the United Nations Development Programme are supported in a ‘win-win’ outsourced arrangement whereby an NGO in a small town in South India helps motivated low-income people learn computer skills through on-the job training. This began as an in-house initiative (by myself) that led to the creation of an NGO with the mandate of bridging the digital divide through such on-the-job opportunities. Over a couple of years, the NGO in question has now provided services — both one-off and ongoing — to UNDP Offices in India, Bhutan, our Oslo Governance Centre, and various units at UNDP Headquarters in New York and Copenhagen.

The logic is simple — outsource the basic tasks at low cost so that the community Facilitator can focus on more strategic and value-added outputs. And in the process, a focus on “Pro-Poor Outsourcing” leads to a direct development impact as a nice positive externality. And in the next few months, we’re going to explore a very exciting possibility — that the workers at the India Centre go to Bhutan to train people from similar backgrounds to provide the same services directly to the UNDP Office in Bhutan. True South-South cooperation to lapse into jargon — no fancy Sheraton hotels will be involved; transport will be by train and bus, and it will be the experience of a lifetime for a couple of youngsters who may well have never been outside their home state let alone to another country.

TASKS OUTSOURCED

I would like to share my experience with outsourcing some of the more mechanical aspects of supporting communities of Practice — with particular reference to 4 very active ‘problem-solving’ communities within the United Nations Development Programme (1500 members each across 130+ countries; 50–100 messages a week on each). The communities I refer to are in internal management topics — Human Resources, Finance, Procurement and Project Management and are all email-based (on a LYRIS platform, just like DGroups).

As many of you know, the day to day aspects of managing virtual communities often involves a lot of fairly mechanical tasks (adding new members, keeping profiles up to date, etc., reporting statistics on membership, contributors, etc). And this is particularly true of our Email based communities. Some of this work can be automated, but this requires the committed support of one’s IT department, which may not always be available.

I have outsourced the following functions, some related to managing a LYRIS-based group, others in connection with building a knowledge base, etc.

  1. MEMBERSHIP: Review pending new member requests twice a day — add and send Welcome Message
  2. REPORTING ON NETWORK ACTIVITY: On a weekly basis produce a summary of: Number of Queries; number of replies; number of “Corporate’ Replies — i.e. replies by headquarter specialists on particular topics — these are done by manual inspection of emails against lists of staff who are corporate resources in specific topics within HR, Finance, etc.
  3. NETWORK TRAFFIC: Combine short messages into a single “multiple contributors” messages; archive individual un-posted messages to maintain a complete record of contributions; categorize messages as INFO, REQUEST FOR DOCUMENTS, Q&A — from simple inspection of the query.
  4. DEAL WITH ATTACHMENTS: If messages in the moderation queue have large attachments, save them and re-create the message with a link to the attachment
  5. BUILD A UNDP ‘WIKI-PEDIA’: Convert Network queries and Discussion Threads into a consolidated Wiki page on our pilot internal Mediawiki platform. Provide basic categorization of the Wiki page including message topic (HR, Finance etc.), and Country asking the query. There are now 2,000 plus pages awaiting the more value-added input of Management Sub-Topic categorization from staff who asked these queries in the first place.
  6. WEEKLY SUMMARY: Create a summary table on a Google Document of all subject threads in a week, categorized by message type and linking to the consolidated thread / Wiki page of each query. Generate an email to HR, etc. focal points with a link to all unanswered queries for the week.

In addition, other manual tasks as and when they come up such as:

  • Maintain IP addresses lists of all network members (for automated access to E-Resources)
  • Transfer new member information from sign-up forms at community events
  • Create basic Surveys on-demand using the LYRIS survey tool

You get the general idea! I know there are many systems people in the km4dev community who will have endless nightmares at the thought of (heaven forbid!) MANUAL processes when they could be automated! And automation may work in many instances. But automation can only go so far, and the advantages of using actual people are many, and the satisfaction of building capacity (to lapse into some development jargon) cannot be matched.

The costs by the way- a grand total of $2,400 / year / Management Community (1500 members per community; 50–100 messages weekly) for around 2 hours a day of support — 365 days a year to do all of the above listed tasks.

LONGER-TERM VISION

I have developed a project proposal to set up a network of low-cost “Pro-Poor Knowledge Management Support Centres” globally across different time zones. If anyone is interested in this concept, and/or possibly partnering on it, or in piloting some outsourced KM support, let me know and I can provide further details. Johannes — starting with you!

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Q3 from Damir Simunic <damir.simunic@gmail.com>

Satish, it is fantastic what you did so far! Encouraging to see such a strong validation of the idea to clearly define and outsource community administration, and seems in a very sustainable way.

How did you recruit the people, and how long did it take to train them?

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A13 from Satish Vangal <satish.vangal@undp.org>

Recruitment was done based on the following criteria:

  1. Reasonable English language skills — In a country like India fluent English is relatively rare outside the bigger cities, but it was not difficult to find people with enough English skills in order to fulfill the tasks required of them.
  2. Low Income backgrounds — half the workers’ families are earning 2–3$ / day.
  3. (Very important): Willingness to pay upfront for a computer skills training course for which they are reimbursed over time. This helps to self-select particularly motivated people.
  4. Gender balance

In terms of locale, broadband availability is of course essential. In addition, the local government Telecoms Director has been especially helpful with broadband provision and prompt attention to breaks in service.

The initial batch of 4 recruits were trained on-site for 1 week (after their prior 1 week basic skills computer training). After that, regular advice and instructions have been provided over email and Skype as needed to clear doubts, convey new tasks, etc. New people are trained by older hands and this has worked very well. They are also starting to move up the value chain and directly communicate with our staff as a ‘Tier 0’ Help desk for certain functions (assisting with IP-based access to our E-Subscriptions, etc.).

Around 12 people in total have now worked at the Centre. The next step that the NGO is working on is to establish arrangements with regular commercial outsourcing companies in India to hire their best trainees, and more will then take their place.

By the way, the NGO also has an environmental mandate — depending on their revenue stream — to invest in the purchase and ecological restoration of degraded lands in the local community. In other words, green their surroundings after meeting expenses and training targets.

Given their familiarity with the LYRIS interface (Same as Dgroups), they would easily be able to assist for example with day to day administration of any communities hosted on Dgroups with little additional upfront training.

Their outputs are certainly not perfect from Day 1, but in general all their clients appreciate the capacity building objectives and accept the extra training time as an investment in a development impact. At the end of the day, what has been especially rewarding is seeing the confidence levels of the “KM workers” increase by leaps and bounds. For example, they now have purchased cell phones with their earnings; are supporting family members; and know more MediaWiki syntax than I do!

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Q4 from Damir Simunic <damir.simunic@gmail.com>

Tony, what would be the difference between a skilled facilitator (a process function), and a “synthesizer” you describe — can we assume this to be a characteristic of a good facilitator? If not, how would the two interact in a community if both were outsourced functions?

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A14 from Tony Pryor <TPryor@irgltd.com>

I think the difference (if indeed there is one) would be one of subject matter knowledge and equally important subject matter trust — he/she is seen as a peer substantively by the community. That means that 1) his/her summaries/syntheses will be trusted and 2) she/he would be capable of knowing what’s important and what’s not. I find that facilitators may know the various techniques for getting people to talk, but they may not know what in fact matters substantively. This isn’t as important when the topic itself is facilitation, collaboration or KM (because in that case the facilitator IS potentially on top of the subject matter of that discussion), but I think it really matters when the community is sector or issue-specific.

In the case of the speakers corners in microlinks, which are by definition very constrained in terms of time and focused in terms of topic, we clearly need both types — someone who knows how to facilitate, and someone(s) who is the “host” or “guide”. Essentially a moderator who is trusted and in fact brings his/her peers to the discussion.

I think one of the mistakes some sector folk make is to assume that “:anyone can facilitate”, but I think facilitators also can make the reverse error, thinking that they can promote a dialogue on any topic. I think it’s possible to find someone with both skills, but it’s not all that common.

Resources

  1. A Dozen Answers to Questions about KM and Communities
  2. Answers to 5 KM Questions: Models, Maturity, Motivation, Solutions, Trends
  3. Questions & Answers
  4. Quora Answers
  5. 9 Questions to answer for knowledge management
  6. 5 questions to answer before starting a new community
  7. Communities of Practice
  8. Communities Manifesto: 10 Principles for Successful Communities
  9. 10 Tips for Leading Communities
  10. How to Be a Great Community Manager
  11. Collaboration Process

Written by

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/

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