Center for Strategic Technology Research
3773 Willow Road
Northbrook, IL 60062
Workshop 4: Research Issues in the design of on-line communities
Most people have complex networks of relationships, beyond their family, that may be described as communities of work, communities of interest, or communities of place. These communities range from very informal groups composed of a few individuals to large structured networks backed by well-funded organizations. Most people, whether they consciously acknowledge it or not, are a part of multiple communities at any given time. My interest in communities has emerged from two perspectives: Communities of Work and Communities of Place.
Communities of Work
I have conducted several field studies of how workgroups and organizations are applying communications and computing technologies to collaborate, share knowledge and improve work practices. An especially important part of this research was to conduct an assessment of Andersen Consulting’s knowledge management practices. Andersen Consulting has one of the world’s largest installed Lotus Notes infrastructures with over 50,000 users worldwide. We visited 17 locations and interviewed and observed over 150 people to understand issues in knowledge sharing and organizational learning. Communities of Practice emerged as an important component in effective corporate knowledge management, so we explicitly focused on understanding the role of communities and how they function most effectively, taking into consideration a wide diversity of community types.
One outcome of the research on Communities of Practice was an analysis of success factors for successful on-line forums for communities of practice. They are as follows.
One of the key differentiators between communities that thrive and those that do not is the degree to which potential members are clear as to what the community offers. One of the reasons why technology based communities are easily established and entered by new members is they provide direct value to people working in the area targeted by the community. In addition, the language and operating processes are well-established and consistent globally. New areas of expertise that cross disciplines are more difficult to establish because there is a lack of shared language and norms.
While Industry and Competency communities serve necessary functions, they contain extremely heterogeneous groups of people with diverse experiences and goals. While some people relish the opportunity to network with large diverse groups, most people believe that "the content of meetings and discussions is not useful for them." Some people also get alienated when there are reorganizations that merge formerly focused communities (as in a subset of an industry) into larger units. The members then lose much of the identity that they had networking with people involved in the more focused community.
The right size for the subject matter
All communities should not be the same size; some are successful with only a dozen members (e.g.. A specialty area within Financial Markets) while some require a larger number to be successful (e.g.. Oracle groups on the Internet). The key difference is the number of people required to make the knowledge base rich enough so that people can find the people or the resources that they are looking for.
Larger communities leave some members feeling lost: the number of people is too large to know most of the people in the community. This lack of a "neighborhood" feel inhibits people from actively participating in the community, because they are not familiar with the people they are exchanging knowledge with.
Communities with a narrow focus are easier to customize to the members’ needs. The kinds of knowledge shared in larger communities is often so diverse that it is difficult to have any one forum that will be of interest to all of its members. A more focused community, on the other hand, has a narrower range of knowledge to be shared so that most forums are of interest to all of the members.
Communities that are extremely focused on a particular industry subset, or the use of a certain technology are very effective at sharing knowledge among themselves. But there are two potential pitfalls that people in these communities fall into: they depend too heavily on their community for knowledge, at the exclusion other resources, and their knowledge is sometimes lost to the rest of AC.
A critical success factor for keeping a community thriving is the direct value it provides to its members. People are more likely to actively participate in a community when there is a clear benefit to their membership in the community. A person’s level of activity in a community will vary over time, based on the applicability of the community knowledge to the work the person is involved in at a point in time.
Centralized support structures have been employed by many communities at AC with great success. Communities also tend to be more successful when they have leaders who not only encourage knowledge sharing, but actively participate in community discussions. Moderators for discussions help seed content as well as manage organization.
Communities can be considered successful when their members actively share knowledge without the aid of any ‘external’ motivators. This improves both the quality and quantity of content contributed to the community. Barriers can include a lack of understanding of how contributed knowledge will be used, lack of feedback for contributions, or problems with the process of contribution. Relationships encourage active participation and knowledge contribution by community members since their members begin to value the recognition they receive from their peers.
Alignment with real-world structures
When asked what communities they identify with, people often respond that they very closely identify themselves with the kind of work they are performing for clients. This translates into a functional/industry definition (e.g.. Human Resources/Financial Markets) of community that goes across organizational borders. Currently, people create these informal networks of individuals through people they have met during engagements. On-line communities are reinforced through other ways to interact with members (in person, etc.)
Communities of Place
I have also been examining Communities of Place in the context of research surrounding community networks and the value that they offer to residents, businesses, government and institutions. As of this writing, I am conducting a global case study of community networking initiatives worldwide, with a particular focus on the effect of informal and formal collaboration. The project involves interviews and observation of project organizers and users of a variety community-based applications. This project seeks to determine what value residents, businesses and institutions are realizing from these systems; which applications show promise to be important bellwethers of future capabilities; and lessons that have been already learned that can be applied to future experiments.
An important facet of this research initiative is to determine the role of informal networking and collaboration as well as structured networking and collaboration in allowing communities to leverage local resources in radically new ways --- to allow them to act in more organized ways to reach their goals of becoming improved places for people to live. On-line communities are an important focus for this research. We also believe that there are parallels between how large, complex organizations have adopted computing and communications technologies and how communities will gain value through the use of these technologies.
A preliminary appraisal of current initiatives indicates that cities and communities that are developing applications using these technologies are applying them in three distinct and complementary ways.
These three ways of using communication and computing technologies in a community context are separated for discussion purposes, but they are certainly inter-related. For example, a particular application may have components that operate on more than one level, such as providing digital access to information complemented by informal networking through chat groups. Or a digital self-service application may be the result of a structured, inter-enterprise collaboration between two community institutions. One important component of this research initiative is to examine the roles and value of each of these three types of application components for successful deployment of new capabilities.
While there are hundreds, if not thousands, of locations that are experimenting with community networking in some form, a survey of their functionality indicates that very few locations have any initiatives with components that extend beyond the first category listed above: providing access to information. Most of the work in business and government services are focused primarily around electronic delivery of services, since these organizations can achieve immediate cost savings as well as provide more convenience to their customers by adopting e-commerce strategies. But there appears to be a trend towards more integrated efforts that require inter-organizational collaboration. If the history of how large, complex organizations have applied communications and computing technologies to reinvent themselves for the information age is a predictor of patterns adopted by communities, higher levels of both informal and structured collaboration will increase both the speed of community transformation and quality of new services created.