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.

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.