The Evolution of Collaboration and Online Communities: Measuring what Matters

10 minute read
David Coleman avatar

In one of the talks I give, I use a picture of African women carrying large jugs of water on their heads. Given this is usually a talk on collaboration, I get lots of puzzled looks.The picture is not about collaboration, but to make a point and be a focus for a story.

African Women.jpg

Figure 1 -- Are you measuring the right thing?

A bureaucrat from the U.N. noticed all the women in the village walking with large water barrels on their heads. As he watched, the women walked 10 miles round trip everyday to the river to get water for cooking and cleaning. The bureaucrat thought this was unfortunate and a stress on the women, so he persuaded the U.N. engineers to build a beautiful well in the middle of the village.

When it was done, none of the women used the well, and he would see them everyday walking to the river with the large water jugs on their heads. Finally, out of frustration the bureaucrat asked one of the women, “Why do you walk 10 miles to the river to get water every day when there is a wonderful new well in the middle of your village?” The women replied, “We don’t mind the walk, it gives us time to talk with each other and catch up, and besides, it gives us some time away from our husbands!”

What Makes a Community?

The point of the story was the right solution for the wrong problem.But it is also a fable on measuring the right thing.If measurement allows us to know something, to bring it into conscious thought, that means we have a chance of changing it. This is true in online communities also. Is the number of community members actually a good metric to use? Is the number of page views also really a metric of anything but the amount of ADD your community has?

How many of those are active community members (ones that post), and how many are lurkers? Looking at the quality of what is posted (as rated by the community itself) and how often might be a good ratio of community quality. But the speed of response of a community does seem to be a good metric not only of engagement, but also of content quality. Chip Rodgers, who runs the developer communities at SAP, once told me that if someone in the community asked a technical question, he/she could count on getting 6-7 good answers within a few minutes.I also asked this question of Sean Iverson who runs the Cisco Learning Network (a community of over a million people).His response was pretty much the same: several good answers within a few minutes.

But sites like Quora, Yahoo Answers, etc. can also provide you with good answers, provided you have asked the right question. At least in the case of Yahoo Answers, I am not sure this comprises a community.However, I think the goal of Quora is to take this a step further and create a community not only around the question and answers, but also the threaded discussion that surrounds them.

Quora calls itself “A continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it.”

Quora also has personal profiles, so you know a bit more about who is answering your question and what other questions they have answered. Like Twitter, you are followed by people and can follow other people. Here is a question I asked on Quora and some of the answers I received.

Consumer vs. Enterprise Communities

Communities may have different goals and purposes. Communities of practice try to help their members with the best process or solution in a specific topic area. In learning communities, the members help each other to learn and improve (for example, help with passing a standardized test). But what about enterprise communities? Is their goal to store documents and support internal communications?

I recently was briefed by two very different internal enterprise community tools: Telligent and NewsGator.


I had a recent briefing with NewsGator, which runs only on SharePoint (with all the +s and -s that implies) and is really the "social" layer looking to enhance SharePoint.A few years ago this may have been a risky strategy, as others like SocialText and Mindtouch also provided social enhancement on SharePoint (2007). NewsGator saw that many of the IT departments at client companies had already committed to SharePoint for internal collaboration, so that is when they made the jump.

And jump with both feet they did. They have a good relationship with Microsoft and know 18 months in advance what is coming. They were also U.S. Partner of the Year for Microsoft. NewsGator knew about SharePoint 2010 and its incompatibilities with MOSS 2007 and provided tools to help with that migration. They do run into other community or social tools like Jive and Lithium, but they see these used mostly for external communities. Actually, we have also seen this at a few of our Silicon Valley clients.

Although NewsGator can be offered as a hosted product, 80-90% of revenues come from licensing of social sites. That means that most IT departments want to have control over their SharePoint servers and the same "on-premise" control of NewsGator.Some of the more social aspects of NewGator, like reputation, rating and ranking, come directly from their acquisition of Tomoye in 2010. This acquisition also gave them significant traction with the government and military, which they were lacking. Along with the fact that Tomoye has been around and running online communities for almost a decade and is also built on the dot net architecture, it was a good match of both skills and technology.

NewsGator acquired 16 people from Tomoye, bringing their number of employees currently up to 90. With about 250 customers and about 2.5 million seats, their average deal size is about 10,000 seats for $100,000, and they claim they are a steal (much lower TCO) compared to competing solutions. NewsGator was started in 2004 and has had several rounds of venture funding, and plan to become profitable by Q4 2011.

NewsGator also runs in Microsoft's cloud solution (called Azure) and is offered as a stand-alone or can integrate with their Socialize product. They are also offering a new tool called "Glassboard," which is a private group messaging and sharing tool. It is lightweight (like Twitter), but is limited to five people in a conversation. It provides a well-integrated mobile experience and allows the sharing of pictures and video, but it is also easily controlled and more secure.

Newsgator Community.jpg

Figure 2 -- NewsGator as a community

At its base (Figure 2), NewsGator offers microblogging, communities, activity streams, social insights (analytics and reporting), social profiles, as well as desktop (you can run the desktop client without SharePoint) and email clients.

There are also some optional modules like Idea Stream, which is an ideation module that competes with BrightTalk, Spigit and Imaginatik.

NewsGator Innovation Model.png

Figure 3 -- NewsGator Innovation Module

Learning Opportunities

It has fewer features (read bells and whistles) than those products, but claims to have all the core functionality needed (i.e., idea submission, idea collection, custom forms, voting, comment and the ability to promote an individual idea).

They also offer a module called Spotlight which is about expertise location and recognition. It also takes social insights to a deeper level and has a variety of scoring algorithms, does a correlation score on the strength of a term, tag, or key word, but it also uses information on the user’s behavior, as well as from their profile.

Given the success of Zynga on Facebook, NewsGator also does "gamification" by offering a variety of badges.They can be based on configurable rules, and can be show in something like a "leader board" for those that like to get competitive over the number and types of badges they earn. Badges also give people a way to recognize expertise. I believe that systems like this (in the enterprise) will ultimately be part of a person’s performance and drive salary or bonus dollars.

NewsGator was originally a news feed aggregator, and they still do that, but they also have included a Twitter feed as well as an SFDC Chatter feed. They also support lots of different types of video formats, are CODEC agnostic, and are always adding new video players to the mix.

They also have a more extensive mobile strategy than Microsoft, and along with supporting Window 7-8 Mobile they also support Android, Blackberry and iPhone. I did ask about presence detection and some real-time collaboration features. NewsGator does integrate with the Lync server for presence, notifications, chat, etc., allowing you to stay within one context and still make these collaboration changes.

Since NewsGator comes from an aggregation background, they still see the problem most people have as information overload, as well as having all the information you want in one place. They do predictive instead of collaborative filtering to try to deal with some of these issues.


Telligent is also an internal enterprise community tool which is like NewsGator, but it does not run on SharePoint. Telligent is also more of a Web 2.0 tool and is more focused on people than content. One of the nice things about Telligent is it allows you to use widgets from Google Gadget or Widgetbox. Although it is a SaaS application, it too supports drag-and-drop, but It does not do any real-time collaboration, and generally needs some IT support in deployment, with the LOB doing the community application. That is also another point of differentiation from NewsGator, which does support real-time interaction, but again through the base Microsoft product Lync.

Telligent Customized Community.jpg

Figure 4 -- Telligent Customized Community

Telligent is about $100/user and also offers some ideation functionality. They also support Android, iPhone, iPad, etc. for their mobile strategy, much like NewsGator.Telligent is also a dot net architecture like NewsGator. But what Telligent has that none of the others do is their widget studio. This allows you to customize your experience and UI to personalize it (see Figure 4).

Telligent also allows you to detect presence through Microsoft Lync, and even though they work with LDAP/AD, they also allow you to integrate with activity streams on Facebook and Twitter.

The Evolution of Conversation

This brings us back to where I started this article -- wondering about activity streams and community. What I have realized is that this is not an “if/or” question but rather that vendors -- rather than take a chance (or maybe they were asked by their customers) -- have started to include activity streams as part of the community. I see this less formal type of collaboration as not new, not exclusive, but as part of the evolution of conversation.

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About the author

David Coleman

David Coleman has been writing about collaboration for over 30 years, and has written four books on the topic. He is a regular contributor to CMSWire, and writes aboutthe social aspects of work, as well as about the technology supporting it.