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Next-generation communities—Part 2 Getting value from the latest community tools and features

This article appears in the issue July/August 2018 [Volume 27, Issue 4]
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New features for virtual communities of practice are cropping up like spring flowers. With competition driving down technology prices and the cloud enabling quicker rollout, it’s easier than ever to enhance your communities with new capabilities. Tools that are implemented without forethought may fail to take root, however, so it’s important to pick the right ones and have a strategy to encourage widespread adoption. Member-based nonprofit APQC finds that enterprise community programs thrive when they offer members an up-to-date toolkit for social connectivity and collaboration, from the latest enterprise social networking capabilities to colleague following, activity feeds, co-creation tools and mobile apps.

Enterprise social networking

Employees expect their business-focused virtual communities to mirror the experiences they have in consumer social networks. On the technology side, it’s not hard for KM leaders to meet that expectation. From well-established tools like Yammer and Basecamp to newer applications like Facebook Workplace and Zoho Connect, there are enterprise social networking options for every budget (including some that are completely free) and to suit almost every security need and IT environment.

Many organizations have embraced enterprise social networking as the foundation for their virtual communities. Social networking is especially well-suited to communities whose discussions tend toward quick tips and informal exchanges among peers. Firms often combine social networking with other complementary collaboration capabilities to facilitate different types and degrees of interaction.

For instance, global utility company ENGIE uses Yammer for the bulk of its community collaboration. Community members use Yammer to create topical groups, connect directly with colleagues, get fast answers to questions and reach a global pool of knowledge for real-time decision making. Microsoft SharePoint is deployed in concert with Yammer to share documents and pull in validated resources. All community tools are cross-linked and part of ENGIE’s Microsoft Office 365 platform, which helps members switch seamlessly among the applications.

There are potential drawbacks to using social networking as the main enabler of community discussions, however. Social platforms are less well-suited to deliberative conversations on deep technical issues or the formal distribution of best practices and subject matter expertise. Crucial updates and answers may slip off the end of users’ ever-churning social feeds, and it can be difficult to surface and reuse past answers (although search capabilities are improving). Some social platforms also have limitations regarding integration with other community features and corporate repositories.

For those reasons, some organizations still use traditional threaded discussion forums instead of, or in addition to, social networking. For example, at oilfield services company Schlumberger, communities are focused on disseminating technical expertise. To accommodate different collaborative needs, Schlumberger allows threaded discussion forums and social networking groups to coexist side by side. Every Schlumberger community has a Yammer group set up for fast and informal conversations, but the community program recommends that critical technical knowledge be shared within the threaded discussion boards where it is easier to catalog and retrieve.

“Following” and connecting with colleagues

Especially in large dispersed organizations, employees need ways to virtually identify and contact colleagues based on their experience. Many community programs enable expertise location through searchable employee profiles. Such profiles typically contain participants’ contact information, work history, current and past roles/projects, expertise areas and interests. The most successful organizations have found ways to improve profiles by making them easier to fill out and integrating social capabilities to increase their use and value.

For example, at chemicals company Nalco Water, an Ecolab Company, employees have personalized MySite profiles in SharePoint. The organization prepopulates the profiles with basic HR information, but employees are expected to fill out other fields. MySite profiles are closely connected to Nalco Water’s virtual communities, and employees can “follow” both communities and individual colleagues. Profiles help community members learn about one another and make connections, and employees can also discover new communities by looking at the groups their colleagues belong to.

Nalco’s KM team encourages new hires to follow anyone they work with, from fellow new hires to experts and managers, and thereby gradually enhance their networks. If an employee is searching for an expert, MySite sorts search results by social distance: Colleagues the employee follows will be at the top of the results list, followed by those colleagues’ colleagues and so on. According to Dan Flynn, Nalco Water’s KM manager, that is beneficial because employees are far more likely to ask for assistance from someone they already know.

Other organizations integrate expertise location more directly into their community platforms. For example, healthcare solutions company Medtronic uses a SharePoint- and Sitrion-based platform called Medtronic Information eXchange (MIX) to enable peer connections. The tool allows employees to find and access expertise directly through social networking capabilities. Employees have profiles within the system, but the focus is on building credibility by answering questions and contributing knowledge, rather than broadcasting a detailed resume of past experience and current interests. The platform has proven particularly useful in facilitating expertise location across traditional silos. When Medtronic performed an analysis, it found that three-quarters of questions posted in MIX were answered by employees outside the questioners’ business units.

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