In this, the second article in the series, The Executive's Guide To SharePoint 2013, we are going to look at the potential benefits that successful use of communities can deliver, examine some best practices for ensuring success with communities, and show how to create a communities service with SharePoint 2013.

Last time we discussed the different ways that people work together in modern organizations, including communities of practice, communities of purpose, communities of interest and personal networks. We looked at how the new SharePoint 2013 Communities features can be used to facilitate collaboration within communities of practice and interest.

What are the Organizational Level Best Practices for Communities?

Over the past 20 years, communities have become the “killer application” (O’Dell and Hubert 2011) of knowledge management. There is a substantial body of empirical evidence from which we can identify the characteristics of successful initiatives around communities of practice / interest. At the organizational level these include:

  1. A supportive organizational, cultural and management framework
  2. A consistent enterprise approach to community creation and management
  3. A distinction between communities of purpose (project teams), and communities of interest / practice
  4. An appropriate technology medium that facilitates knowledge exchange, retrieval and collaboration

A good starting point is to secure top level executive and management commitment to the systematic and strategic use of communities to address significant business challenges and opportunities. Leadership support is vital because executives can drive the organizational change required.

Winning executive support is likely to depend on the identification of one or two centrally sponsored communities and an understanding of their purpose and potential benefits. You’ll need to consider how you are going to encourage active community participation. Gifted badges and reputation points are all very good and well, but most people have targets to meet and things to deliver. A high community rating is unlikely to be seen as an acceptable alternative to doing your job.

You should consider techniques for making community work part of people's jobs. Changes to HR policies to link appraisals and bonus schemes to community contributions are an excellent way to send a clear message that community work is seen as a valued activity in your organization. Since community work is time consuming you might consider it appropriate to require management approval to join communities, and you might want to add community work to timesheet and work tracking systems.

It’s important to have a consistent enterprise approach to the creation and management of communities, and you should provide both for centrally sponsored or top-down communities, and grass-roots or bottom-up communities. Your approach should include a process for suggesting or requesting the creation of a community and a clear and transparent criteria for the evaluation of a request. You should determine the process by which the results or outputs of communities are harvested and shared with the rest of the organization.

It’s a good idea to separate your communities of practice / interest from your communities of purpose. This is because these different types of communities have very different value propositions and raison d’etre. Communities of purpose are about people working together to achieve a specific goal. The community only exists until that goal has been achieved. Communities of practice / interest are about social learning. These communities exist as long as the community members remain motivated to participate.

Finally, to leverage communities at a strategic and organizational level you will need an appropriate technology medium to facilitate knowledge exchange, retrieval and collaboration. SharePoint 2013 provides native functionality that enables us to create technology environments to support communities of purpose, and communities of practice / interest.

What are the Best Practices for Success at the Community Level?

We can also identify a number of success factors at the level of each individual community of practice / interest. These include (O’Dell and Hubert 2011):

  1. Clear and compelling value proposition for all involved
  2. Clear alignment of community and organizational objectives
  3. Several key metrics to show results
  4. An agenda of critical topics for the next three to 18 months
  5. Competent and committed community leaders or core volunteer teams
  6. An outlined and easy to follow knowledge sharing process
  7. Communication and training plans for members and interested stakeholders
  8. An up to date and dynamic roster of members

As I emphasized in the last article, purpose is the trigger and vital ingredient for a successful community. It binds the group together, provides motivation and provides the means to measure results and success.

The purpose of each community should be linked with the organizational objectives. This provides the basis for the business case for each individual community. Having an agenda of topics provides ongoing focus for the community and helps to maintain the organizational-community strategic alignment. If you’re creating a community SharePoint site then perhaps it’d be a good idea to post the purpose, success metrics and agenda for the community on the home page.

Strong community leadership is a key element of a successful community, “Communities and networks will succeed or fail based on the competency of the community leaders and their core volunteer teams.” Some organizations such as Schlumberger hold annual elections for community leaders, and require that managers must approve community time before employees stand for election (O’Dell and Hubert 2011).

It’s important that there is a clear and outlined process for knowledge sharing and for harvesting the results. SharePoint 2013 uses a specially adapted discussion board for sharing information within a community, but the new follow site and follow tag features provide mechanisms to share information beyond the community site. Don’t assume that everyone will have an inherent understanding of how to use these tools. Training and support will be necessary if you want to maximize your chances of success.

Finally a community environment should include an up to date and dynamic roster of members. Hurrah! It’s a built in feature of the SharePoint 2013 Community site.

Back to SharePoint 2013 

As you can see success with communities of practice / interest has very little to do with technology, so the vast majority of those organizations that simply deploy SharePoint 2013 Community sites and wait for the magic to happen will be disappointed. Create the organizational and management environment first, and the technical environment last.

In creating the technical environment the first thing to remember is that you should keep your communities of purpose (teams and projects) environment and your communities of practice / interest environment separate. I like to call these environments, Services. You can read more about the concept of SharePoint business services in my Art of SharePoint Success article, and you can see a case study of a community of purpose environment I created at a European central bank here.

For the purpose of this discussion let’s focus on building a service for communities of practice / interest. I’d take the following approach:

  1. A dedicated SharePoint web application
  2. A root site collection which includes
    1. A directory of active community sites
    2. A new community request form
    3. A leadership statement outlining the corporate commitment to Communities
    4. A library of community success stories
    5. News and announcements relating to the Communities service
    6. A service description describing service levels such as site quotas, acceptable file types and customization policies
    7. A help and support section and resources
  3. A portfolio of site collections, one for each community

SharePoint 2013 includes a Communities site template which aggregates community sites and this could be a good starting point for your root site collection, or service home page, but as you can see from the list above I suggest that you’ll need to add a significant amount of content. The community site template then provides a great starting point for each individual community environment.

What About the Business Case?

I can’t credibly call an article an Executives Guide without at least a passing reference to the business case! The benefits of a community (of practice / interest) programme will be the aggregated benefits of each individual community. The benefit of each individual community will depend mostly on the clarity of purpose for the community, and on achieving high levels of participation, harvesting the results and implementing change as a result.

You’ll need to be able to identify issues and areas in your organization that are suitable for addressing with communities. Gartner analysts Bradley and MacDonald offer the following model to help evaluate the suitability of a particular challenge or opportunity for community collaboration.

Figure 1: Assessing organizational opportunities for community collaboration

Another great way to understand the potential value proposition of communities is to research case studies of other organizations that have been successful.

For example, consider a global manufacturing organization with geographically distributed production plants and imagine that you want to address quality issues (Bradley and MacDonald 2012). A traditional approach might be to assemble a project team and have them visit each production plant, interview the managers and staff and observe working practices and measure success rates. This information could then be analyzed by the project team, who could then produce a set of best practices to distribute to the plant managers.

An alternative approach using communities would be to invite plant managers to be part of a community, using a SharePoint 2013 community site as their primary means of communication and information sharing. The community would be tasked with the specific objective of identifying the best quality procedures and practices within a fixed time period. Through the community process ideas and suggestions would be posted, evaluated and validated.

One manager might post that a particular technique worked well for them, another might respond and report that in their case the technique required a particular adjustment. At the end of the process the best ideas will have bubbled to the top and can be harvested and incorporated into standard approaches.

Plant managers are much more likely to accept the changes that result from this process because they played an active role in developing them, and the process is likely to be more efficient and effective because the new methods will already have been validated by the community.

If you don’t already have SharePoint or are facing a cost for upgrading it’s important to recognize that Communities are just one of the very many different business solutions that you can deploy on SharePoint. It would be a tough ask to justify the cost of a new SharePoint implementation or upgrade on the basis of the new community features!

My usual advice is to split the cost of the hardware and software or the upgrade into a separate business case. Think about the other solutions which you may deploy on the platform and spread the costs across them all. If you’re considering SharePoint specifically because you want to follow a communities based strategy and are comparing it to other technologies, remember that SharePoint is a broad platform that delivers much more than just communities. Cost avoidance or system consolidation is often a very powerful factor in SharePoint-related business cases.

You should also remember that the capital expenditure on the technology is only part of the cost equation. There will be significant costs relating to training, user adoption, governance and management and participation in communities.

And finally …

In this article I’ve focused on the use of communities of practice / purpose because these are a new use case in SharePoint 2013. Communities of purpose (projects and teams) have been present in SharePoint for many years, but there are noteworthy improvements to the tools to support project teams as well. These include:

  • Improved task management and new timeline view of tasks
  • Improved site creation process and user experience
  • The ability to share documents from within your SharePoint sites with external users
  • Integration between SharePoint task lists and Microsoft Project
  • Improved security and permissions management user experience
  • Improved team email management via Exchange integration.

For next time …

That wraps up our discussion on Communities. In our next exciting instalment we’ll be sticking with the social theme and taking a look at the truth about MySites! 

Editor's Note: To read more of Symon's thoughts on SharePoint, why not look at The Art of SharePoint Success?