The Event: The Synopsis
by Ron Lichty
Architecting Community and Collaboration Solutions
There were 150-plus registrants.
And as I said in my introduction to the panel...
Most of us (at least attending the event) have used community and collaboration functionality of some type. And I'm probably like most in being pleased with the progress of this functionality but frustrated with the realization that what I really want is so much more.
The panel represents organizations that have already done it, a window through which we can begin to see the futures for our own organizations.
- Nonprofit: Eugene Eric Kim, Blue Oxen
- Corporate: Sylvia L. Marino, Edmunds, has been part of online communities for 17 years and has been paid for her activity in them for the last 10; she focuses her efforts these days on business value and ROI
- Political: Zack Rosen, DeanSpace (the Howard Dean campaign), and now CivicSpaceLabs; his is a "mission-driven company," and he focuses on delivering not monetary but social ROI
- Governmental: Tony Christopher, enabling the FAA and NASA and 200 private industry participants to collaborate to re-design the National Airspace System (NAS); Tony's first two decades' involvement with collaboration software was building tools; for the past two years, using today's tools, his empathy for users has mushroomed
- Corporate: Scott Wilder, Group Manager, Intuit's QuickBooks online communities, which launched last Dec. 31st; a decade ago, Scott product managed the very first web sites that accepted paid advertising
The incisive comments sprinkled through the evening started in the first minutes during moderator Eugene Kim’s opening comments. “I don’t believe in online communities,” he said. “Howard Rheingold coined the term 20 or 25 years ago. He did us a service. But the phrase created a problem as well. Somehow in among the ‘online’, we lost the notion of ‘community.’”
Eugene noted that community and collaboration software has enabled communities to self-organize online. But he advised the audience, “You can say ‘I want Wikipedia.’ But that doesn’t mean you can put up a wiki and have it ‘take.’ You can’t organize self-organization.”
Scott Wilder’s first contribution was a corollary to that. “You have to let the community decide where the community is going to go, and how the community should behave.” But just because you can’t fabricate community doesn’t mean you can’t facilitate it. Scott described how he learned five or six years ago how to pick users who would make good online collaborators.
Tony Christopher estimates the Federal Aviation Administration spent $200K the first year on its Knowledge Sharing Network (KSN), but achieved savings in the millions: savings from reduced travel, increased ability to find information, improved communication, etc. At this point, he said, “a work group that adopts KSN can see a seven percent savings in their budget in the first year.”
What has accounted for its success? He noted the configurability of the Sharepoint software, Microsoft’s collaboration server. Modules they’re using include calendar, file repositories, list repositories, and internal linking between calendar entries and anything else. “You have to let business users figure out their use themselves, so the configurability of the tools has been crucial.”
But the success hasn’t really been the tools, said Tony, but rather the processes. For example, the KSN network trains a member of every work group to be a facilitator. And the facilitators then become part of a community of facilitators that reaches across the FAA’s departments nationwide.
Sylvia Marino opened her remarks with an Edmunds user-for-life story. A new car owner was recently stranded with her two kids in a dark neighborhood, the electronic systems dead for hours. But when she got to the dealership, the car was starting fine and the repair department treated her as though she had made up the complaint. She went home fuming and got on Edmund’s site, where she found she was not alone. She quickly connected with other owners with the problem, who told her how she could get it repaired, what to tell service, the actual number of the service bulletin to have the service department look up online if they hadn’t received a hard-copy yet -- and that the repair would most certainly be covered by the manufacturer, with a national recall expected shortly.
Sylvia contributed another voice to the “let the community evolve” theme. “Find tools that allow members to share information and to give or get support. Similarly, find tools that allow users to evolve their own affinity groups.” At Edmunds, she notes, the hybrid-car people and the SUV people behave very differently.
As to ROI, Sylvia noted, “We hope that by providing this community space, they’ll reward us by using the tools on our site.”
Two years ago, Zack Rosen left his computer science studies to join the Howard Dean campaign. There was no money and no support, but the campaign had one chief innovation: the staff -- the 200 people at Dean headquarters in Vermont -- would say that the campaign was not their show. The campaign was not the national organization in Vermont. It was the 600,000 volunteers nationwide. Instead of directing the campaign’s local activities, the staff said, “we’re just facilitators. This is your show. If you have a good idea, share it.”
In fact, Zack said, the use of MeetUp, blogs, and other tools came from the grassroots. Zack’s goal became to provide better, integrated tools for volunteers to create communities online: Doctors for Dean, Pittsburgh for Dean, .… The people in Cincinnati would know what the people in Columbus were doing.
After the Dean campaign ended, he started CivicSpace to provide open source infrastructure that could be used by campaigns and nonprofits broadly. “It turns out you can’t write very good code in a campaign cycle,” he noted wryly. “We threw it away and started over.” Now he’s busy finishing CivicSpace and building a community of people trying to build communities.
The first of the Q&A questions asked how the rest of Edmunds perceived the community effort.
How do you convince companies to stick with meeting customers where they’re at?
In fact, Sylvia replied, there was initially fear that community would cannibalize the parent site’s visitors -- suck them off. But that wasn’t what happened, and through education of the business owners, over time they developed trust.
“The business has recognized the profitability community users bring. They’re:
- More loyal
- Use the tools more
- Create more page views
- Bring in more people – due to its viral nature
How do you identify community members to pay as staff?
Scott: Today we don’t pay people. Giving people recognition as an expert is often enough.
Sylvia: We’re on the cusp of paying 1 or 2 members. Most groups self-appoint leaders. And while the leaders have been volunteers, they often get perks. Take the two leaders the Subaru group looks to. Subaru has flown these two people to Subaru events.
Scott: We call them answer people or mavens. There is great pride in being those people. Our job is to make sure the internal employees give them their space.
Tony: The FAA saw one user take standard lists and turn them into a capability to send out surveys. People become clever at facilitating the work. They’re the motivators and caretakers of the community.
What staff is required for tens of thousands of members?
Sylvia: We have a part-time developer, and 12 part-time readers, people whose job it is to read every message that is posted. We had to choose between “read everything” or “have members report anything egregious.” “Read everything” provides consistency. And even though owners of one or another rough-and-ready truck or off-road car might think a certain level of profanity is ok, consistency lets our CEO make a presentation in Detroit and pull up any discussion board without fear of what might be written there.
Scott: No soliciting is enforced consistently. We have gotten positive feedback from users that they know they can come to our site without being hassled.
Do you ban users?
Sylvia: Yes, based on severity of the offense. You should know that I average two death threats a year.
Scott: We use the two-strikes rule.
What qualities should I look for in an online community manager?
Zack: Integrity, a long history in the community, investment in the community.
Tony: Being respected in the workgroup, enthusiasm for the tools.
Sylvia: Someone willing to put the members first, and worry less about marketing and how much money we’re going to pull out of a community.
Scott: You first have to consider how many people you have on your community team. Do you already have technical or marketing experience? If you have just one person, then that person must combine technical and marketing expertse, must be good at listening to the voice of the customer, must provide the works.
What resources would you recommend for setting up a large community worldwide?
Tony: There’s a book, Cultivating Communities of Practice , by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, William M. Snyder. I thought this was the best hands-on guide to understanding, creating and cultivating Communities of Practice I have read. It’s not as academic as other works; it provides very practical guidance.
“And I would be glad to support your effort should you wish some additional insights or guidance to strengthen your expert groups.”
Communities that also meet in the real world seem more viable. Do you think about scheduling face-to-face meetings for your groups?
Scott: Yes. But the mindset in the company is to focus first on online. I thought it a great idea for people to meet in person, but the MeetUp groups have all dissolved.
Sylvia: We encourage people to get together. But for legal reasons we don’t promote people meeting, but rather promote events like auto shows that would be good places for them to meet. When we told our audience that a brand manager from a car company would be at a Santa Monica track event, we had people drive there all the way from New Jersey!
What about the use of voice? Skype? Yahoo Voice? AOL, MSN, ???
Zack: For us, absolutely. Asteryx, for example, turns telephony into a web application. There are tons of interesting things you can do with voice around organizing people. For a volunteer organizer who needs to reach 15 people, the response rate to15 emails is not high enough. Phone is much higher. And the tools are free. Asteryx is free. Skype is free. We can’t wait to put them to use.
How are you integrating user feedback into the next generation of community tools and architecture?
Scott: In real-time. A lot of research. We do usability both online and offline with our users. We make some simple changes like messaging changes within 24 hours. We cultivate “answer people” who bring in ideas from other sites, and we rely on those folks and incorporate them into the development process.
Sylvia: We run an off-the-shelf product, Web Crossing, which also powers The New York Times and Oprah. We got our core functionality out of that package. We’ve worked with the platform and with other customers to move it forward. Communities of similar size tend to have similar problems, so networking with other community managers has helped understand how to integrate changes that have bubbled up through the membership.
Tony: What the FAA is doing with KSN is to expand features based on what they hear from their facilitators. There was a broad request for better workflow. They did a lot of research, and found an off the shelf product that met their requirements that’s very configurable. They’ve added business intelligence features in a similar way.
Zack: CivicSpace is very easy to configure because it’s open source. And we find the community is doing the same exact thing as others, so it’s very easy to advance the broad feature set.
How do you tame the flood?
Sylvia: You don’t want to over-manage your members. Who are you to say what’s interesting to them. When I went to Edmund’s, I had no idea people liked to talk about tires that much. Who was I to say you can’t create a community around that. On the flip side, it’s our job when we see a discussion started that exists somewhere else, to get that question to the right place where other users already are. It goes back to management.
Anyone monetizing collaborative information?
Sylvia: GuruNet, Answers.com
But beware of design that is focused entirely on intent to monetize and ignores usability and community wants and needs.
Have you seen people’s use of mobile phones foster anything new or different?
Sylvia: Before new cars come out, the car companies will cover their prototype cars with black tar-paper -- they’re called “masked cars” -- but they have to have test drivers drive them around. People who live around design centers these days routinely take spy shots with their mobile phones and share them on our site. There’s a huge community of spy shot folks. The auto manufacturers hate it. But it creates buzz. And a lot of controversy.
Twice in 9 years, we’ve had someone post something that’s inside information. The car companies will demand a user name. Having a good user agreement and making sure it has a clear privacy clause is why you need to make your Legal department your friend. It has to be clear in getting members’ to agree to terms of service that they can’t share privileged information.
Scott: We work with our software service providers, Web Crossing and Typepad. Intuit will have policies, but we also work with these provider companies’ legal groups. Our challenge is that we absolutely have to avoid mentioning features of our next versions of software, or our accounting folks will have to recognize revenue in the current quarter. Legal helps us avoid problems like that.
Have you promoted your community as a feature of your parent sites?
Scott: We’re promoting community quite a bit.
Tony: With regards to intranet knowledge management systems, one of the big issues of portals and intranet systems is adoption. Some groups do more promotion than others.
Sylvia: Our promotion is divided: If the Edmunds.com web site promotes a vehicle, we try to get them to show the five or two or three discussions on the community site. The challenge is that a lot of web managers do search engine optimization poorly. So, sadly enough, our community will sometimes rank higher than both the corporate Edmunds.com site and, amazingly, the manufacturer’s own site. Search engines focus on rich, dynamic content, and that’s exactly what our community provides, so it gets high rankings.
On the flip side, we promote our site events to other user group sites. We’ll tell other Audi user groups the date and time of our online Audi events and invite their members to attend.
Many of the panelists left contact information for both attendees and those who missed the event to follow up with them:
- Zack Rosen, CivicSpaceLabs, email@example.com and AIM: uberzacker
- Sylvia L. Marino, Edmunds Forums, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Scott Wilder, QuickBooks online communities,
- Tony Christopher has posted his handout online, and points to a Microsoft case study on the FAA's Knowledge Sharing Network. But Tony adds, "Something that I would reinforce is that process around Knowledge Worker collaboration systems – adoption, facilitation, practices, support, and training – is more important than the tools… With strong facilitation and support, a group can get a lot of mileage out of less than optimal tools because its members are working together to use them in consistent ways group-wide. And that's far better than having tools with outstanding functionality that few members use and those who do all use differently." Through his company Digital Places, he helps organizations think through their situations to identify simple but effective processes that can be employed to get more out of existing tools. That can result in a generation of users knowledgeable and informed enough to lead requirements development and selection of the next generation of tools that are a match for the processes in meeting the organization's goals.