In Part 2 of this series, I discussed collaborating in teams. This part covers collaborating in communities using threaded discussions, wikis, and events.
Threaded discussions are tools 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. Previously known as bulletin boards, listservs, newsgroups, message boards, discussion boards, online discussions, and forums. they provide benefits to their subscribers and to the organization. They enable subscribers to learn from other members; share new ideas, lessons learned, proven practices, 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 threaded discussion, 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 threaded discussions. 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 threaded discussions is sharing insights, techniques, and innovations with community members. Posting a tip on how a problem was solved, a user 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, threaded discussions 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.
Email is the killer application for communications, and threaded discussions are the killer application for communities. There is a connection between these two applications: threaded discussion tools need to allow for reading and posting entirely by email. When selecting or implementing such a tool, be sure that full email functionality is provided so that subscribers will not have to visit an online site in order to participate in discussions. Allowing users to choose between email or online interaction is valuable; both options should be provided.
Threaded discussions have advantages over ordinary email with distribution lists:
- Users can typically choose to collaborate in one of three ways: online, entirely by email, or with mobile apps. This provides flexibility and accommodates personal preferences.
- Discussions are maintained in threads and can be more easily found and read.
- Threaded discussions can be searched from the specific platform or from enterprise search.
- When integrated with a KM recognition program, points can be automatically awarded for posts and replies to encourage participation.
- The user experience is greatly improved by actively managing communities to weed out dead ones, help community managers successfully build new ones, and avoid redundancy and topics that are too narrow or restrictive.
Threaded discussions are the primary tool of online communities. This is where community members interact by sharing, asking, finding, answering, recognizing, informing, and suggesting.
To make these online threaded discussions work well as part of the community, there is basic functionality that should be provided. Posting and replying should be possible in a web browser, app, email, or mobile device. Users should not have to log into a system different from where they spend most of their time. For example, if they spend most of their time in email, make it so they can ask a question just by sending an email without having to leave email and visit a website.
Threaded discussions should have searchable archives. Once a discussion has taken place it should not be difficult to find it subsequently. Many discussions are still very helpful much later on. The fact that people took the time to help one another in the past can be useful again, so make it easy to find old discussions through search and tags.
Grouping online discussions into threads makes it very easy to see the entire history. If email is used instead for ongoing discussions, threading is either minimal or nonexistent. There is a long series of emails which makes it very hard to go back and reconstruct who asked what, who answered whom, and in what order. If you have ever had to grapple with a large group discussion conducted entirely via email, you know that it can easily get out of control. Some participants respond to an old email, leave someone off the distribution, or add a new addressee. This makes it difficult to sort out the order, determine, who was dropped, who was added, and what is missing. In contrast, in an online threaded discussion where everything is captured, there is no need to worry about any of that. The entire discussion is maintained in chronological order, threads are differentiated, and it is easy to see who answered whom, when they did it, and in what order.
Wikis are sites that allow users to easily add, remove, edit, and change most available content. They are effective for collaborative writing, self-service page creation, and shared maintenance of information. A wiki page can be edited by anyone, thus making it easy to collaborate on writing a document, creating a website, or collecting information on a topic. It has been most successfully used in Wikipedia, a free encyclopedia that has achieved dramatic levels of contribution and use.
Within communities, wikis have been used to create internal equivalents of Wikipedia for knowledge about the community and its activities. They are very well-suited for the production of documentation by teams of writers and editors, as the shared editing capability is ideal for this task. Wikis are also useful for collecting diverse inputs, links to other sites, and multiple points of view.
Wikis allow any community member to easily add, remove, and edit content. Instead of having to go through a website owner or web maintainer, a wiki enables everyone to do it themselves. They can create a page easily and maintain it on their own, with no need to contact a webpage editor.
Wikis include version control, so users can see all the different versions of a document or a page. They can see who made each change and when, and they can revert back to any previous version. If changes were made that should not persist, an earlier version can be easily restored.
Talk pages are another feature of wikis. Behind each wiki page there is often a tab to access a discussion about that page. For example, if there is a disagreement on what should be posted on the page, or if there is a clarification needed about a change, a discussion can take place right on the associated talk page.
Wikis generally have the ability to generate hyperlinks automatically. Normally when developing websites, links have to be manually inserted by explicitly copying and pasting a URL into a link field. But in a wiki the user can just type in the name of the item they wish to link to. If it already exists, it will automatically insert the hyperlink, and if not, it will insert a stub for creating one. If someone later creates that page, it will automatically be linked to from where it was first mentioned. In Wikipedia such stubs appear in red, meaning that a link is intended but there is currently no page for that link. If that page gets created, that link will change from red to blue, and when clicked on, it will turn to purple.
Here are ten use cases for wikis:
- Collaborate on planning the agenda for a meeting.
- Compile the minutes from a meeting.
- Provide a list of resources that can be updated, added to, and corrected by anyone.
- Capture and maintain a body of knowledge that will evolve through iterative definitions from multiple contributors, compiling diverse inputs to create a thorough content collection.
- Collect, enhance, and maintain reference information for a community.
- Create an outline that will be fleshed out over time by a variety of subject matter experts.
- Enable employees to create and collaboratively edit their own content pages.
- Encourage users to collaboratively edit community support pages.
- Brainstorm to come up with new ideas.
- Achieve consensus on a topic, e.g., drafting and developing a policy or procedure.
Community events can extend the value of communities beyond online discussions and wikis, which are limited to text and images. These events include meetings, peer assists, and knowledge cafés.
Regular in-person meetings, video conferences, web conferences, or conference calls are good for building rapport and trust within communities. Face-to-face meetings and video conferences allow members to see each other and deepen relationships. Web conferences and conference calls enable voices to be heard. Threaded discussions can be used to publicize meetings, team spaces can hold calendars and meeting agendas, and wikis can store slides, recordings, and group chat transcripts.
The community that I lead, the SIKM leaders Community, has monthly calls with speakers scheduled well in advance. Community members are invited to attend to listen to the speaker, ask questions, and interact with one another.
A peer assist is a process where a team of people working on a project or activity call a meeting or workshop to seek knowledge and insights from people in other teams. Developed at BP, it was used to learn from the experiences of others before embarking on an activity or project. A peer assist brings together a group of peers to elicit feedback on a problem, project, or activity, and to draw lessons from the participants’ knowledge and experience.
It was originally designed as a one to two-day facilitated meeting involving two groups of professionals: a team trying to deal with the critical business issue, and a team of subject matter or domain experts whose knowledge and experience can be tapped. The ability of the peer assist to tap into new expertise makes it a valuable tool that yields immediate insights and results.
In communities, peer assists can be conducted as shorter, virtual events. A community member facing a challenge can schedule a peer assist to seek help from the community. The member presents the challenge, and the community responds with advice and suggestions. The event can be recorded so others who were unable to attend can benefit.
A knowledge café is a conversational process that brings a group of people together to share experiences, learn from each other, build relationships, and make better sense of a rapidly changing, complex, less-predictable world. The goal is to improve decision making, innovation, and the ways in which people work together. It is an intentional way to create a living network of conversation around questions that matter. It is a creative process for leading collaborative dialogue, sharing knowledge, and creating possibilities for action in groups of all sizes.
In a knowledge café, a subject is chosen for discussion. There is an initial brief presentation followed by breaking up into groups. If held in person, these are at different tables, and if virtual, these are breakout rooms. The participants take turns talking about the topic and then rotate to a different table or breakout room. They keep rotating several times, and a result, gain many different perspectives. This can be a very useful way to start conversations and get people who might otherwise just sit back and listen to be active participants in a discussion.
Principles, Keys to Success, and Actions
Here are ten principles for successful communities:
- Communities should be independent of organization structure. They are based on what members want to interact on.
- Communities are different from teams. They are based on topics, not on assignments.
- Communities are not sites, team spaces, blogs or wikis. They are people who choose to interact.
- Community leadership and membership should be voluntary. You can suggest that people join but should not force them to.
- Communities should span boundaries. They should cross functions, organizations, and geographic locations.
- Minimize redundancy in communities. Before creating a new one, check if an existing community already addresses the topic.
- Communities need a critical mass of members. Take steps to build membership.
- Communities should start with as broad a scope as is reasonable. Separate communities can be spun off if warranted.
- Communities need to be actively nurtured. Community leaders need to create, build, and sustain communities.
- Communities can be created, led, and supported using TARGET: Types (TRAIL — Topic, Role, Audience, Industry, Location), Activities (SPACE — Subscribe, Post, Attend, Contribute, Engage), Requirements (SMILE — Subject, Members, Interaction, Leaders, Enthusiasm), Goals (PATCH — Participation, Anecdotes, Tools, Coverage, Health), Expectations (SHAPE — Schedule, Host, Answer, Post, Expand), Tools (SCENT — Site, Calendar, Events, News, Threads).
5 Keys to Success
Here are five keys to success for a community of practice:
- A compelling topic: The members and potential members must identify with the topic, be passionate about it, and it must be relevant to their work.
- A critical mass of members: You usually need at least 100 members, with 200 being a better target.
- A committed leader: A capable community manager chooses to spend time leading the community.
- Regular events: Conference calls, webinars, or in-person meetings are scheduled and held regularly.
- Active online discussions: Regular posts are made, multiple replies are received, and no questions are left unanswered in the threaded discussions.
Here are ten actions community managers should take:
- Carefully choose the community’s topic.
- Publicize the community widely.
- Take steps to increase membership, both initially and on an ongoing basis.
- Post and reply in the threaded discussions to prime the pump and set the example.
- Publish and distribute a monthly community newsletter.
- Schedule and host community events.
- Provide useful content.
- Tell community members how they should participate.
- Set goals and measure progress for the community.
- Solicit, find, and publicize success stories about the community.
In Part 4 of this series, I discuss Working Out Loud.