Did you miss me? Since wrapping up the Art of SharePoint Success series here on CMSWire I’ve been reviewing the SharePoint Server 2013 Preview. There’s already lots of articles and posts out there that tell you about all the cool new features but little guidance on how to use them in an organization, or what benefits they might deliver so I am back with a new series of articles which examine SharePoint 2013 from the executive's perspective.

To get this party started we’re kicking off by looking at one of the headline features in SharePoint 2013, "Communities."

What are "Communities"?

The Microsoft Technet web site tells us,

Community Sites provides a forum experience in the SharePoint environment. This experience enables community members to contribute information and ask for help from other members. Community Portals provide a directory of community sites for users to search and discover communities of interest … Communities are part of the social computing offering in SharePoint Server 2013 Preview. They provide a means for fostering collaboration among large groups of employees in an enterprise. By using communities, employees have an outlet to collaborate outside traditional hierarchies whilst keeping valuable IP within the company”

Any the wiser? I thought not.

Communities are a knowledge management technique and delivering business value from their use requires an understanding of underlying principles, technology is a very small part of success with communities. The phrase, “10% tools, 20% processes and 70% people”, is a truism in the context of communities, we can rely on Microsoft for the 10% tools but for the other 90% we need to look elsewhere.

The secret to understanding Communities, (or much of SharePoint for that matter) is to understand the different ways that people work together within modern organizations. Table 1 lists the main modes of interaction between people within an organization, identifies the key characteristics of each, and shows the differences between them.

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Table 1: How people work together

"Communities of practice" was a term coined by social anthropologists Jean Lave and learning theorist Etienne Wegner in their 1991 book “Situated Learning.” It refers to a group of people that share a common practice or profession.

Their research showed that through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group, the community members learn from each other and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally. Marketing, HR, IT, Finance, Legal, IT are examples of potential communities of practice found in most modern organizations, but without explicit management intervention and effort these groups don’t act as a community.

Communities of purpose are groups of people who share a common objective. The classic organizational example of a community of purpose is a project team; a cross functional group of people who are all trying to achieve the same thing.

Communities of interest are a group of people who share a common passion for a particular topic. In most cases these groups tend to be much less visible and harder to identify than communities of practice or purpose. For example in 2010 I worked with a European central bank to implement a collaboration platform. The bank was split into six divisions each with numerous business units. One division was focused on the global economy, and another on the national economy. Both of these divisions contained business units that were concerned with inflation but they had no knowledge of or interaction with each other.

Finally there are networks, and these aren’t really communities, they are disparate individuals with very loose associations with each other, bound by nothing more than a desire to stay in touch with each other. As with communities of interest networks tend to be low visibility and difficult to identify and leverage at the organizational level.

How do Communities Work?

Gartner analysts Anthony Bradley and Mark McDonald describe workings of a community as a cycle consisting of four stages (Bradley & McDonald 2011). Figure 1 illustrates the process.

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Figure 1: The Community collaboration cycle

Purpose is the trigger and primary input for a community. Purpose is the thing which draws the members of the community together, and provides basis for measuring for its success. Members then make contributions of ideas, suggestions and experiences related to the purpose. Through multi-sided discussion and various means of feedback and aggregation, contributions are judged and assessed by the community. Through a collective evaluation process contributions considered most valuable by the community will float to the surface. Transparent feedback encourages the community to evolve in desirable directions as members see what behaviour and contributions are considered valuable. The process of validations builds the status of the contribution and the contributor. 

What’s this got to do with SharePoint?

We can map certain elements of the SharePoint 2013 Preview to the different ways that people work together.

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Table 2: How SharePoint Server 2013 supports the different ways that people work together

Support for project teams, or communities of purpose were part of the genesis of SharePoint and these tools have evolved through the various SharePoint versions, and project team collaboration has long been the sweet spot for SharePoint implementations. Support for networks began in SharePoint Portal Server 2003 with the introduction of a My Site, and has been significantly enhanced in each subsequent version.

It’s always been possible to use SharePoint to deliver tools to support communities of interest and communities of practice but it’s required significant development or the use of 3rd party products, but now SharePoint Server 2013 community sites and the communities portal introduces native functionality to support these interactions. With SharePoint Server 2013 it should become cheaper and quicker to deploy tools to support these groups.

How Does SharePoint Server 2013 Preview Support the Community Process?

SharePoint 2013 includes a template to use as the basis for creating community web sites. At the heart of a community site is a discussion board which members can use to begin conversations on a specific topic, or to post questions to the rest of the community. Site moderators can create categories to organize the discussion threads. This supports the contribution element of the community process.

Members can post replies to topics, or to other replies, and they can rate topics and replies in one of two ways. Either they can rate the contribution using a five star system, or they can "Like" a contribution indicating their approval. This facilitates the feedback element of the community process.

The specially configured discussion board allows the list of topics to be sorted according the rating of contributions. The “What’s hot?” view highlights the highest rated topics. This supports the judgement element of the community process.

The community site includes reputation management features. Members can earn points based on their activity. For example points can be awarded on the basis of creating a new post, replying to a post, having a contribution liked or receiving a 4 or 5 star rating, or if one of their replies is awarded “Best reply” status by the moderator. Members earn badges based on either an accumulation of points, or by being gifted a badge by the site moderator.

The site includes a list of members that can be sorted by reputation to identify the top rated contributors. Reputation management supports the change element of the community process by enabling members to clearly see which actions and contributions are highly rated and valued by the members. It’s an important feature but I can see many SharePoint 2013 demonstrations and presentations to executives coming to a sticky end as they are told, “Look we can award badges and points to people,” without being given the appropriate context and explanation.

Next Time …

We now know what communities are, how they work, and how they relate to SharePoint 2013, so in our next episode we will be looking at the benefits that they can deliver and how to actually go about creating them and using them effectively in your organization. And it’s got very little to do technology…

If the Executive's Guide To SharePoint 2013 is getting you all excited then you can come and see the live show at Microsoft’s London offices on October 19th.

Editor's Notes: To read the article that started it all, read Symon Garfield's:

-- The Art of SharePoint Success: A Quick Start Guide