When you start thinking about whether or not you need a community, there are likely a dozen questions running through your mind -- at least there should be. If you haven't taken the time to think about what a community will achieve for your organization, then don't go buying the technology to create one.

If you need a little guidance along your path, CMSWire talked with two community evangelists: Lawrence Liu, Director of Platform Strategy at Telligent (news, site) and George Dearing, Telligent Evangelist about how to tell if you need one, how to approach a community strategy and what are some key features in community solutions.

Whether you choose to go the path of Telligent Community Server or not, there's some solid information to take home and think about.

To Build or Not to Build a Community

So how do you know if you need a community or not? Dearing says that organizations are striving to be more efficient in communicating inside and outside the firewall. It's critical that you sit back and ask yourself what exactly you are trying to do? What do you think a community will achieve for you?

With many community software vendors trying to push you into a toolset mindset, you may find yourself attempting to engage your business around a technology approach and be warned now -- it doesn't work.

Even analyst firm Gartner stresses the importance of having a purpose when deploying any type of social software solution, hence the term "purpose-driven communities".

Liu agreed saying that customers often come for a solution "end" when they ask for a community. What they are really looking for is maybe a way to provide cross group collaboration, or a better way to connect with customers or partners, maybe they are trying to change a mindset to be more open and sharing.

You have to think about the problem you are trying to solve -- that will tell you if you need a community and what kind it needs to be.

Do You Need a Community Strategy?

There has been an increase in demand for strategy services according to Dearing. Organizations are looking for someone to facilitate the conversation and help them get "down into the weeds" to understand what the business drivers really are.

When you are trying to think about who to involve from your company to help develop your strategy, think about people at the line of business level. These are the people involved in the day to day workflow -- the knowledge worker. The solution you are looking for is usually aimed at making things easier and more flexible for them, so it only makes sense that they be involved at the beginning.

In Telligent's case, they partner with consulting partners to get help organizations develop their community strategies. It's these partners who help organizations define the business drivers and develop the scenarios needed to move forward.

As Liu indicates, organizational alignment is required and how you implement a community will depend on the alignment of those business objectives defined in your strategy. There are, Liu says, five natural segments of alignment:

  • Marketing & Sales - Internet Facing
  • Support and Services - Customer Support
  • Research and Development
  • Partners and Alumni - Alumni is a small niche that many don't consider even though they hold a vast amount of knowledge about your organization
  • Employees and Stakeholders - Intranet focused

IT is Stepping Up to the Plate

Another positive trend Liu has seen is that the IT divisions within organizations are stepping up and helping to get communities implemented. Without centralized support, many community implementations have been silos and that kind of defeats their purpose.

HR Can Be A Driver Too

Another organization that is starting to pay attention to the value of a community is HR. This is one division that spans the entire organization and has the ability to make an impact, encouraging enterprise wide adoption of a community. 

Does the Term "Social" Work in the Enterprise?

We already know that most organizations don't like to think or speak of Facebook when they talk about enterprise social computing solutions. But what is also starting to surface according to Liu and Dearing is that many companies don't necessarily like to use the term "social" either.

The preference -- and it makes perfect sense -- is to use terms like teamwork, collaboration, communication, networking.

Not all vendors of social computing solutions necessarily agree with this. For example, Jive Software's latest release of their solution is called "Social Business Software". Liu says the brand is smart, but risky.

Should Community Software Be a Stack or a Shim?

There are also differing opinions on where social computing solutions fit in the enterprise. Jive Software's release of their Social Business Software positions their solution as a complete stack. Telligent on the other hand, positions itself as a Shim -- one part of the stack.

Learning Opportunities

What's interesting here is that there isn't a lot of difference in terms of the technology offered, pointing to the commodization of social software to some degree. The differences now lie more in how the solutions are positioned and what the vendors approach is to solve the problem.

For Telligent, CEO Rob Howard says they need to "become the fabric inside" and integrate the various enterprise systems to provide the best value. This is certainly a different mindset pointing more to a platform solution like SharePoint than an all encompassing "do it all with Telligent".

The Telligent Community Platform

Of course you can't talk to the Director of Platform Strategy and a Telligent Community evangelist without discussing the community platform they offer. Forrester says it's one of the top for community platforms for interactive marketers, but Telligent sees itself as a solution for much more.

Community Server has all the obvious pieces of functionality that you would expect in a community platform. It includes Activity Streams which Liu indicates are becoming much more useful. Tagging in the community spans content types which makes finding content across the entire community easy.

Community Server is configurable allowing you to fine tune it on the fly. As you want them, you turn functionality on -- it's not an all or nothing install. Telligent has built their platform this way because they realize they can't provide a single solution that fits everyone.

They also realize they may not offer all the functionality needed out of the box, providing plug-in capabilities that enable you to build new applications or extend the existing one (CS Publisher is one example of this). In addition their widget framework enables you to pull in content from other systems or services. We also know the Telligent plays very well with SharePoint with their Community Server Evolution platform.

Probably the biggest differentiator is their analytics with Harvest Reporting Server. It's critical to understand how your community is working -- or not working -- to help you achieve your business objectives. Traditional web analytics don't cut it with communities.

The Telligent Community is Equally Important

In a market where things change very fast, Telligent is working hard to keep up and in some cases move ahead of the large number of community solution vendors. With their platform strategy formalized, we are seeing updates every six months and according to Liu and Dearing there are some exciting things coming in the next version of Community Server expected sometime mid-year.

And of course Telligent themselves is continuing to build their own community and live the values and ideas they sell every day. Liu says their own community made up of their platform and partners is critical to their success. They need to provide great technical documentation and guidance.

Key Takeaways

There are a lot of useful takeaways here to keep in your back pocket when you start discussing the need for a community. Technology does not come first, the business drivers and scenarios do. Once you understand what you are trying to achieve, then look at your technology options and decide which one is going to best deliver on that strategy you worked to develop.

You can learn a lot from listening to community vendors like Telligent and others who are out there talking to organizations, listening as well as advising. One expects that they develop their solutions around these conversations and customer insights. If they aren't then they aren't listening to their own community.