Community sponsors must merge desired and available functionality together to create a coherent service. Note that “coherent” does not necessarily imply “single solution.” Often a single solution is not even possible. Consider how the community orientations offered by Wenger, White, and Smith map to possible functionality (and note that there can be variability within some cells based on the specific nature of a community).
With an understanding of the functionality required for a community and the functionality available, someone initiating a community needs to set up a tool or set of tools. To oversimplify, there are two alternatives to consider: a single all-in-one community platform or a “best of breed” approach that brings together a range of excellent tools for each specialty into a loose package that the community uses. In reality, this is somewhat of a false dichotomy because it is almost impossible to find all desired services in one package and unnecessarily unwieldy not to have some core platform to be the “home” site. At this point it is best to plan for a home platform that serves as a core to the community and then some additional elements as it makes sense to add them.
9.1 The Core Platform
As noted earlier, online communities need to focus on doing a small number of things really well, rather than offering a variety of services. In order to create this focused, simple experience, having a core platform makes sense. This platform will contain the major functionality the community will use, as well some additional supporting features to augment the major pieces. There are three main benefits to having a core platform as the basis for the community:
1. Having a clear, first place to go provides a seamless user experience. Users do not need to keep track of several URLs and site layouts; they learn one system and can do much of what they need.
2. Fewer systems makes community management easier. Those initiating a community can develop 2 or 3 main ways for users to interact—tailored to the community goals and user needs—and then train and support members on just those features.
3. An “all-in-one” system can be a cheap and easy pilot. Many of the options for core platforms are delivered either as online services (“software as a service”) or as fairly easy-to-set-up downloads. They do much of what is needed “out of the box,” so a community initiator can put a platform in place with a low initial investment and begin generating use. The community managers will then typically have the option to configure the platform in at least a few and sometimes a multitude of ways.
Common features provided in most core platforms are: document/file repository, blog/announcements area, member profiles, general information area, commenting and discussions, and some form of calendar. Many will offer more, but this list is a common core. Most allow administrators some measure of control over which features appear, allowing a community manager to turn on a limited set of features at launch and then add others over time. Below are further examples.
9.2 Example Core Collaboration Platforms
Community leaders and stakeholders can choose from among numerous core online collaboration platforms. (Wikipedia maintains one list (over 250 platforms) at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_collaborative_software.) Although it is possible to group these platforms into categories (“workspace products,” “conferencing products,” “community products,” etc.), each platform has unique characteristics that complicate straightforward classification. There are several important characteristics that need to be considered when selecting a primary platform for a given online community. Three of the most important defining qualities would include the following:
- Feature Set—Collaboration platforms vary in how they aggregate different built-in features such as discussion boards, blogs, calendars, and document libraries. Some platforms are feature-rich, while others are purposely simplistic. There is often a tradeoff between having many feature choices, often accompanied by complexity that causes confusion, and features that are limited but easier to understand and use.
- Open-Source—Collaboration platforms have emerged from both open-source and commercial environments. Open-source platforms often carry the advantages of no licensing costs, full access to the code base, multiple options for commercial implementation and management assistance, and, sometimes, an active international community of developers supporting the product. On the other hand, the platforms can be rough around the edges, may require programming skills to maintain, and may lack built-in support services. In contrast, the best proprietary platforms can be smoothly functioning and supported but bring inflexibility in coding changes and at times carry a high licensing cost.
- Hosting—Collaboration platforms can be provided in a hosted environment—often referred to as software as a service (SAAS)—or as a software product you host yourself. SAAS platforms offer ease of setup and configuration, are updated automatically, and generally have proven scalability. Software solutions by contract can offer more flexibility and control. Both SAAS platforms and software solutions can vary greatly in price, from free to six figures per year for a unique instance.
Against this backdrop of features and tradeoffs, the following list describes a representative selection of popular platform choices:
- Jive SBS—Jive SBS is a full-featured, proprietary platform that supports online community interactions of many types. Without any configuration, it has user-friendly functionality for posting to discussions and blogs, commenting on content, and updating user profile pages. It allows users to create document libraries and tag documents. Administrators can also group tags to provide a level of hierarchy to larger libraries (e.g., topics and subtopics). Jive is a commercial platform and can be expensive for larger communities.
- Drupal Commons—Drupal Commons is a versatile and complete open-source community platform. It approximates the “out of the box” functionality of Jive, integrating a significant suite of tools, handling content and user permissions well, and allowing customization to unique needs. The tool is provided by Acquia, the enterprise technical services company that supports Drupal, one of the largest and best established open-source content management systems. As such, a large, global, well-organized, and extremely active developer community effectively backs it.
- Central Desktop—Central Desktop is a proprietary, hosted platform that does a number of things well. It ably supports collaborative workspaces that involve task and document management. It has excellent integration with e-mail allowing members to both push e‑mail notifications when they publish content and allow users to cc: workspaces when they send e-mails. It also provides fairly advanced milestone and task-management functionality, useful for task and project management.
- SharePoint—SharePoint is a proprietary platform owned by Microsoft that can be used as software or in a hosted environment. Like Central Desktop, SharePoint is relatively strong for project and document collaboration. It is flexible in terms of taxonomies, supporting multiple facets of metadata for large document repositories. It also has strong integration with MS Office files.
- BuddyPress—BuddyPress is an open-source social networking software suite built upon the popular blogging platform WordPress. It provides many of the common features expected in social networking platforms, with the advantage of using a set of technologies familiar to a global Web development community. BuddyPress itself is relatively new (May 2009) and, as such, is evolving quickly. The underlying WordPress platform, however, is well established and has an active developer community.
- Edmodo.com—Edmodo is a different option from others on this list in that it is a custom-built education social networking system rather than a general collaboration product. Its focus is on providing a safe, efficient means for teachers to have online collaboration in their classrooms and districts to have a larger collaboration infrastructure. Within this framework, however, there is also a substantial teacher-to-teacher community area, and this feature could certainly grow to include administrators or other educational professionals. The tool provides social networking functionality as well as discussions and document sharing. The interface is straightforward and borrows heavily from Facebook, making it easy to adopt. It is currently free for all users.
- PBWorks—PBWorks is a commercial, hosted wiki-based platform. Wikis are collaboratively editable tools that allow a group of users to easily set up pages and link to subpages, attach documents, and have discussions about those pages. Although it does have a “classroom” pricing plan that is reasonable, it is generally designed for enterprise-level users and is, for that reason, somewhat more expensive.
- Groupsite—Groupsite is a hosted workspace product that is easy to implement and is intuitive to use. It offers sufficient themes and configuration options to meet most organizations’ needs. It provides nice integration with e-mail, with easy-to-configure notifications tied to discussions, announcements, and other interactive features.
- Ning—Ning is a hosted workspace product that boasts the largest numbers of users and networks of all the private social networks. It is reliable, scalable, and relatively configurable, including through incorporation of external applications that support its API.
- SocialGO—SocialGO is a social networking platform that integrates online collaboration with social networking. It also includes an online video chat feature. It is simple to set up with a step-by-step process for editing the site. Users can send out bulletins to all other users. Although the free basic version is usable, most of the better features require a paid subscription.
- Tomoye Community Software and Social Sites—Tomoye Community Software is a proprietary platform owned by Newsgator. It is a social networking and collaboration platform built specifically for communities of practice. It aggregates multiple features like document sharing, blogs, wikis, videos, and Q&A. It has a mechanism that allows users to interact with the site via e‑mail, thus making the site more accessible. It showcases community experts as a function of their contributions to the community, displaying whether they are helpful, active, highly networked, and so on. The platform also allows users to rate content highlighting what members consider to be the most valuable content for the community. The Social Sites version of the software is designed to integrate with SharePoint. Like Jive, it can be quite expensive for large communities.
- Alfresco Share—Alfresco Share is an open-source community platform, built to allow collaboration on content and projects with a globally dispersed team. It includes social features, such as status changes, tagging, and activity feeds. It has collaboration tools that include a document library, blog, wiki, calendar, workflow, and task-management feature. Through a personalized dashboard, users can view the activities across all the sites to which they belong. The sites also have a built-in reader that allows users to view multiple types of documents within the application without the need to download them. It is easy to set up, customize, and scale.
9.3 Supporting Services
Almost invariably, some features that the community needs will not be available as part of the selected core platform. A community may need some of these early in its life for particular needs (e.g., a webinar tool to support a community with many offline discussions), but many others may need to be added over time. After running a successful community based on a document repository and a discussion area, for instance, a community may decide to use a social bookmarking service to gather links from across the Web. The community may also want to survey members, in which case a separate survey tool would be useful.
As a community grows, it can explore a wider set of technologies. Are there incentive tools that can be integrated to spur growth and activity? Can the team leverage an external wiki or collaborative authoring tool to create a shared knowledge product? Should leaders of the community launch a blog to highlight the community’s work? In these and many other ways, the community can and should expand beyond the core platform as its needs evolve.
These examples represent cases where a community grows such that it still appears to be a single destination, but it is actually a loosely (at best) connected set of functions. APIs, feeds, widgets, and other integration tools can become an avenue for stitching services more explicitly. Some of this work is relatively easy within the tools in question, but other integrations are harder. In fact, there is an inevitable trade-off between the value of having a more connected, coherent system and the cost of the required integration work. The hard work of a higher level of integration work may be justified, though, if re-creating the more singular experience of the “early days” translates into more efficient work, further growth, or new and productive kinds of interaction.
9.4 Third-Party Sites and Social Media
Social media sites represent a special kind of supporting service because they can play multiple kinds of roles. They provide a major asset in their sheer size and, if used well, should at least be part of a marketing strategy for a new community. Those starting a new community focused on Topic X ought to put out notifications on Facebook and Twitter, for instance, if the community is quite public, or perhaps LinkedIn, if it needs to be limited to certain audiences.
Social media sites can also serve as an ongoing dissemination channel for communities. Some communities can use feeds to social media sites as a way to broadcast content to members and target audiences who prefer to interact through that channel (or who are simply less likely to visit the core site).
These services can be central aspects of the community in their own right. Twitter recently united protesters in Tunisia and Egypt. LinkedIn can serve as a discussion-based community for professionals of many varieties. Even Facebook can be used in this capacity (though many users think of it as a “play” space and not a “work” space). No such community service provides a comprehensive enough experience to be a true core platform in most cases, but, if audiences are already using one well in another context, incorporating these services into the community architecture could be valuable. Community designers might also consider creating custom applications that extend these systems in a manner that serves the community’s goals.
A major challenge is to decide which specific activities should remain “on-domain” and which should take place on the social media sites. As a general rule, social media site communities tend to be more casual but have broader reach. For that reason, they serve as a good catchment from which to identify and migrate active users to your core community. The Obama campaign, for example, found that their huge Facebook communities did not result in significant donations, but users who migrated from Facebook to Obama’s dedicated community sites (e.g., barackobama.com) did donate. Social media communities also represent an excellent communications outlet to amplify community efforts. Many organizations set staffing targets of level of effort “on-domain” and “off-domain”; there is no set rule, but it is not unusual to divide time evenly between the two.