Quite often here at Industrial we are asked by our clients to help them decide on the best platform for what is commonly called "Communities of Practice." This is typically an online forum that allows users within a specific area of practice to connect and have discussions.
For example: A group of physiotherapists with a specialty in paediatrics.
But before you jump into researching software solutions, take some time to consider the questions below to help guide your decision.
Eight Questions to Ask
It might seem obvious, however, it's key to remember to always ask, "Why?" before jumping to what and how. What has sent you down the path of seeking a platform for your community? Are you solving a specific problem that has been identified within your organization? Are your members or stakeholders asking for a place to have dialogue?
We've all heard the saying, "If you build it, they will come." Kevin Costner may have been right in Field of Dreams, but it couldn't be further from the truth with online forums.
2. Are you building a community, or giving a community a place to talk?
There's a big difference between trying to build a community versus giving an existing community a place to talk. If we assume the community exists, the next key question is whether or not conversations are already happening elsewhere. Are your users already using Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, or other private discussion forums to have dialogue?
Remember, it's very hard to displace existing discussion groups. Why would users start using your online forum if there is already another place they can go to have good dialogue with peers? It's hard to displace an existing user group without a clear benefit to moving the discussion to your platform.
3. Who are your users?
Understanding your users is critical to success. What is the typical age group: young and savvy millennials, gen-X'ers, or boomers? Are they geographically diverse, and does that matter? How do they communicate today: email, social media, instant messaging, forums? Are they members only, or both members and non-members?
4. What is the context of the typical user?
Once you understand the demographic profile of the user, you should ask what their context is when engaging in discussion. Are they on the go? If so, mobile access and usability to your platform are critical to success. Are they typically at work, at home, or in a coffee shop?
If they are at work, are they behind strict firewalls that limit their ability to use modern software applications? This can be especially true in hospitals and government buildings.
Do they typically have a fast Internet connection, or are some users in rural areas?
5. What type of dialogue is expected?
Will typical dialogue be among a small group of users? Or might dozens or hundreds of users take part in a conversation on a topic?
Conversations could take the form of quick questions and answers, such as: "Can someone tell me how to…?”
Conversely, discussions could take the form of long, detailed, technical descriptions of a situation or topic. As a result, a "conversation" can have a very short lifecycle or a very long lifecycle that takes part over weeks or months.
6. How sensitive or private are the conversations?
Can the dialogue be shared in the public domain? Understanding whether or not the type of conversation is highly sensitive—or not—is very important in deciding the best platform. Ask the question: how harmful would it be if these conversations were accidentally published publicly?
7. Do you have champions?
When building communities of practice, you need a champion within each practice area. A champion is a person who is involved in the planning of the forum from day one, and is very engaged. Champions are typically subject matter experts who see tremendous value in providing a collaborative platform for users, and will promote it as such.
Champions will stay active in the forum, answering questions and creating new dialogue. Ideally, these are people in the field—not staff—who have the respect of their peers.
8. Is it in someone’s job description to moderate it?
Internal buy-in is key to success. Moderating and maintaining an online forum can be a significant undertaking. It can't be expected that simply deploying a platform and getting users started will result in success. What is the best internal department to manage and oversee the platform? Does someone on staff have time (on top of their regular duties) to stay engaged and provide oversight?
Is your marketing and communication team properly positioned to promote it regularly?
Once you've answered these questions, you can then start to evaluate the best software solutions to meet your needs. There are plenty of options out there.
Here are a few of our favourites:
Discourse is a modern, slick, and open source online discussion forum. Key to online forums is the concept of a threaded discussion; users can reply to each other's comments and build a threaded discussion. Discourse is the leader in the threaded forum space, and powers some of the most commonly used forums.
It has a great API, and is built on a very modern technology stack.
Slack is a modern twist on the traditional instant messaging software category. If you've used Skype, Microsoft Messenger, or ICQ, you're familiar with the basics of how it works. Slack is great for quick, direct communication by a group of people. It's used for internal communication within a company (we use it every day here at Industrial), and can also be used by external groups.
It has a concept called Channels for discussing specific topics, and supports private discussion groups. It's built for integration with other software, a big part of its popularity.
Disqus is a great platform for bringing discussions onto your existing website. It is primarily used as a tool for powering commenting on your website, and it comes with integrations for common content management systems such as Drupal and WordPress. Disqus is great if you want to have your members or anonymous users have dialogue about a posting on your website.
In today's world of constant technical innovation, it's easy to jump right into evaluating the many great software applications that could help to solve a problem for your organization. Online discussion platforms are no different, with many great options available.
Creating an online community isn't easy. Taking the time to consider the questions outlined here - why before what or how - will help to better position your Communities of Practice for success.