Saturday, November 14, 2009

I want to facilitate online discussions but how do I choose the right platform?

Photo: participants in our workhshop on online facilitation

In many situations non-ICT specialists want to organise some online conversations and are looking for a good online space. A discussion forum functionality is key for this purpose, other things are nice to have but often blur the decision about the forum to choose.

Situation 1: You're looking for an online platform for your sailing club or for your family to prepare for the yearly family reunion. You make an easy choice and open a ning or groupsite. It is free (with ads), you do not have to install anything, it is easy to manage, so you're ready in a few minutes.

Situation 2: Now at work. You work for a company and may be asked to guide the process to develop a platform. There has been an intranet and an agency that has built the intranet. Now you're probably going into process to build a platform on your intranet.

In these two different situations seem as if the choice is made by the circumstances and often the choice is made for a platform that people are familiar with. It is very difficult to see the trees through the forest with all the tools.

But what are really the options you have for online community platforms and how you do it right choices? In this blog post I want to outline various possibilities especially for non-ICTers in organizations (like me) because it is a question I'm often asked. First it is good to know that many many online platforms offer similar functionality: a discussion forum, the possibility of personal pages, one page with the members, a document sharing tools, the ability to create subgroups and management tools for administrators. In order of increasing investment required I will present five practical options. The book Digital habitats of Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John Smith has been an input, as well as the blogpost by Christian Kreutz: a starter for development organisations engaging in online networks.

Possibility 1. Opening a group on an existing social network sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn.

What is it? Most major social network sites such as MySpace and LinkedIn have the opportunity to start your own group. You can invite people to join your group. Often there are good functionality including announcing events, hold discussions and news announce.

Advantages: If all your participants are accustomed to this social network (and often already logged in), they do not get used to the technique. Since you appear in the list of groups, it is easy to attract new members, spontaneously. It's free. It's easy to set up.

Disadvantages: It does not work for participants who are not members in this social network (or you have to convince them they should become a member). Also, you do not have many possibilities to get the look and feel to suit your own organization. It feels like you are in the pub of this social network. This is not bad if everyone feels at home there, but it gives less the feeling of a home for the community or group. Also you have to do with the features available. Your information is stored externally.

So you can use this property for a group with a clear goal where almost all members already are a member of this social network, and it is not so important to create an 'own' online place for the group. The basic functions are sufficient for your group. It may also be strategic if you want to attract member who are frequently on this social network.

Option 2: A (free) Create email list like google group, or a yahoo group

Advantages: This is a way of communicating online that anyone who can email can handle, and is very low threshold. The advantage over email is that you have an archive, and a list of members you can share documents online. It is easy and free.

Disadvantages: It is limited to one single simultaneously discussion. Everyone follows (or does not follow) this discussion, but you can not run multiple parallel discussions. It does not look attractive.

This is still a great opportunity for groups who are not used much online to exchange email and do not have a need to feel part of a larger organisation. There is no learning curve (or a small learning curve). If you can email, you can do this. If you want to set up several online communities for an organizations, it may be less appropriate, unless you link the spaces.

Option 3: Your own social network platform like Ning, group site,, Socialgo, collectivex, MINDZ.

What is it? There are web2.0 services for building your own free social network for your group can make. This is a revolution compared to the 'old' way of building a platform, with huge development costs. It is often free if you can cope with advertising, but you pay if you don't want advertising or other paid services. You can often host your own domain (redirect to a different Web address) or support for some payment.

Advantages: It's an accessible way to see if this type of exchange is working. If not so, then the platform can easily be deleted without having invested a lot of energy and money in developing a good platform. You lift on the success of a social network concept which is designed with the idea of strengthening relationships. It is common that every member has their own page. These services are often very well developed in the social aspect. It is easy to use even for administrators.

Disadvantages: You can not change everything to suit your own needs, and you are dependent on a number of choices that are made by the service. Nevertheless, you can customize some aspects, such as the number of tabs, or a number of features you want or not, etc. Content is hosted externally.

If you have a small budget, this is a good choice. For professional use you can get started with it too, if you want to experiment first and don't know yet how your interaction will flow. Compared with the first 2 options can include creating a clearer sense of group together because you have a special place online. It is also possible to invite a graphic designer to create and apply so that the appearance you want. It is important to make a comparison of the different platforms if you choose this option. Ning for instance doesnot have an easy file sharing possibility and groupsite does.

Option 4: Community software which is designed for knowledge sharing and interaction. Examples are Winkwaves, Tomoye, icohere, etc. or open source software like Drupal, Joomla or elgg (moodle is also used, but is actually optimized for Education)

What is it? Community platforms are software packages designed for use by online communities. In other words, the software is designed with the aim of encouraging online networking, sharing, online discussions, knowledge sharing. There is also open source software that is compatible for this purpose. It is often necessary though to have technical knowledge to install the software and adapt the open source software to the demands, but there are standard modules that you can use. Often there is the possibility to host the platform on your own server, but you can also host it externally.

Advantages: The advantage is that the functionality already fully developed and tested for optimal interaction in an online community. You take advantage of the experiences of others. You can use the software and customize the look and feel, choose the modules you want or not, so it is easy to customize to your needs.

Disadvantages: This is a more expensive option than the previous options. It requires more technical knowledge and the necessary support must be well thought through. The design process is longer.

Just as with option 3 you need to compare the software packages before you choose software for your situation. You should also study the pricing system. With open source software is useful to look at the experiences of others, the software is already well developed? It is good to find developers who have experience with this particular software.

Option 5: Build your own platform as an extension of existing software systems in use throughout the organization (eg. sharepoint)

What is it? You can also create your own discussion forum within existing intranets or other software used in the organization. You build it yourself to suit your own needs, with the help of the host and support of the other software. This requires an investment in the design process and the development (construction) costs.

Disadvantages: Often the existing software is developed for other purposes, such as data storage and document sharing. It is not optimal for social purposes and knowledge sharing. It requires a good design in close collaboration with an IT development company.

Advantage: It can be easy because you already have contacts and experience with you software support company. You do not have to find new external support. Also there is the advantage that people may have developed some routines like logging in to the system.

This is an option you can consider when people are very enthusiastic about the existing software and use it very actively. It is good to list all the technical functionalities that you would like to see upfront and asking whether it is possible to get all the features working. This prevents subsequent disappointments after everything has been built.

NB. It is also possible to combine different options. To create a Web2.0 platform AND create a google group email list. There are also options that offer the possibility to have conversations without having a discussion forum as the key tool, like twitter exchanges, or using the comments page of a wiki.
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Jamie Billingham said...

You could also look at some of the collective intelligence software options like THOUGHtstream.

It combines the best of social and secure and is very inexpensive.

Sheds said...

Forums for me is helpful most especially if we are not familiar with what we are up to or undecided on certain matter. It is where we can find some recommendations and even suggestions of people who are expert to the topic we have asked about. You have got nice post in the site. I would love to read all of it.