flowing motion

Thinking out my 2 steps for building early stage forums

Posted on: February 23, 2010

Get specific help fast on the internet

Ask specific questions on Linkedin

A long time ago, I asked a very specific question on Linkedin.  “How do we find a ship at sea?”

Through the weekend, insurance professionals and ship’s captains coached me on how to deal with Lloyds, how to track the vessel’s responders, and even how to detect illegal changes in a ship’s registration number.  It was great.  Real experts stepped up and coached me on important details.

Present the pertinent facts to fellow experts on Stackoverflow

Other examples of great information exchange also take place on the internet.  Stackoverflow is a forum where computer professionals also pose specific questions usually as a short paragraph stating what happened and what they have already tried.   Members give each other advice and rate both the answers and the questions.

Stackoverflow platform and other communties

Stackoverflow is rather a famous forum because it works.  Late last year, they released their code as a white label so that other communities can use it as platform for their specialist forums.

Stackoverflow rarely works as well though for other communities though.  This seems to be the reasons why forums “fail”.

3 reasons for “forum fail”

#1  People come to “chat” rather than to ask questions.   Their goal is to punt for clients or to gain some kind of nebulous networking status.

#2  The situations are not “important”.  The only person who benefits from the answer to the question is the asker (if they even asked a genuine question).

#3  The situations are not “hard”.  The situations are ambiguous and uncertain, to be sure.  But they ae not “hard”.  “Hard” situations involved double or treble loop.  The basic question in a “hard” situation is “Is it me or should it be this hard to do?”  Forums do not do so well on triple loop learning where we are asking how, how hard AND whether it is important.

3 guides for “winning forums”

To turn these problems around, forums might succeed when

#1 There are genuinely “important” problems.  That is, there is something I must do to to help a customer.

When I am in IT and I am trying to get IT running to support an entire organization, that is important.  Figuring out how to please my professor, on the other hand  is not “important”.  It has not importance outside of itself.

#2  The situations are “hard”.   That is, it is hard to tell if we are making a mistake or if the solution is not possible.  In these conditions, a expert coach helps our learning curve enormously.

Stackoveflow asks its members to ask questions that can be answered rather than “discussed”.  Most forums are dominated by questions that are broad and vague, or, they are not specific about what the asked is trying to achieve and what they have tried so far.

#3  A community of expertise already in exists.  A community of people have very similar problems to solve and shared ways of attempting solutions.

Far too often, questions on forums require a thorough audit of context, resources and skills.  That is, they require intervention of a professional to ask what is required here, what resources do we have and what skills do we have.  On Stackoverflow, professionals are speaking to each other, and the learning task is to cope with double loop learning (and render it single loop by providing help, coaching and support).

Thought experiments about forums that work and forums that don’t work

To test this trio of criteria, I’ve thought up a two forums and used the criteria to think about when and how the forums would work

A cooking forum

# 1 Importance

I am cooking for someone else.  I want to them to enjoy their meal.

#2  Hard

I can search endlessly for the “right” recipe with locally available ingredients.  Or, I can take directions from someone who has already located available ingredients and isolated what can be done with them.

#3  Community

There are other people who cook for similar social situations with similar ingredients.  I have lived in communities who don’t put a high premium on cooking well.  Cooking has a limited range of ingredients and skill, and quantity is more important than quality.   In these communities, there is no call for a cooking forum.  Equally, in a large city with many single people, there may be call for a community interested in the best places to get good food.   It is simply not cost effective (or pleasurable) to cook pizza, English breakfast, dim sum, and so on for one person in a tiny apartment.

A forum for professional psychologists

#1 Importance

Do we have a common understanding of our customers?  Clincial and educational psychologists might have a common understanding, but do we in work & organizational psychology?  Do HR managers have a common understanding of their customers?  Hmm . .

#2 Hard

In my experience of small groups of work & organizational psychologists who trust each other, “hard” questions usually hinge on engaging the customer.   In groups who do not trust each other, technical questions are usually a proxy for the question – how do I frame the issues for these customers (who I shall not name either because I don’t trust you or because I am embarrassed by my lack of know how.)

#3 Community

Is there a community of work & organizational psychologists who are commited to this project of understanding their customers.  Or are we, like my cooking community, who only worried about eating more?    Are we competing with each other rather than collaborating on the common project of solving problems that are important and hard?

How to develop a community before we launch a forum

So what do we do when it seems that our forum sucks because we don’t have a community?

# [Hard] Answer our own questions.  Write a blog?  Writing clarifies thinking – it does for me, anyway.  That is what I am doing now.

# [Important] Clarify the social situation of our question, at least for ourselves.  For example, single well-off people in a big city don’t want to cook.  But they do want to eat well.  We can write about what they want to know, which is where reasonably priced food is exquisite. Work & organizational psychologists don’t know much about their customers.  So write about customers and concerns from the customers’ point of view being quite clear which elements of psychology were useful to them (and which were not)?

# [Community] In a previous incarnation, I was able to use institutional means to develop a professional community.  We developed programmes.  We developed alliances.  We arrange mutual continuing education by doing a ‘stretch’ project together each year.  We collaborated to create face-to-face sessions that linked noobes to experts, noobes to noobes, and experts to experts.

When we don’t have institutional resources at our disposal, we can use the internet to put ourselves out there.  Web2.0 facilties like blogs, Slideshare Linkedin, Twitter, Yahoo Upcoming and Dopplr help people find us.  So do contact forms on our websites and blog technologies that allow people to comment directly onto our website pages.  The apex of “2.0”, I think, is aranging meetups and hackdays to bring people together to develop mutual projects.  Well that was our mutual annual CPD project – those were fun days.

I haven’t seen many stories of people who have developed communities from scratch.  It is improbable anyway.  Because we must share an “important” concern and believe it is so “important” that we will help each other to navigate “hard”.  So we are looking at latent communities.

  • Step 1.  Begin with the customer who we don’t serve well, perhaps.  Not the customer who is a cash cow.  But the customer who needs something done and whose lives would be so much better if it were done.
  • Step 2. Then use Web2.0 technologies to allow people who are searching for answers to find you.

And document it!  We need more stories.

Comments?

Build the roads to bring people to you.  Host the conversation, in other words, but don’t expect the success of Stackoverflow at the outset.

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