Thursday, November 8, 2007

Communities and Participation

A conundrum which a lot of us have been facing ... How do we know where our social computing efforts are headed. Something I have been thinking about for some time, and thought I would blog about some of my thoughts on this, basically with reference to online communities within the organizational context. One of the most important aspects of the social computing initiative in the organization could be the communities into which the folks out there organize themselves (ok, so they do need some kind of structure to guide, but not to enforce ...), and the way these communities are generating value. I am not talking about these communities generating thoughts, but generating value, which is the next logical step.

It would have been quite simple, if communities were like task-forces ... Come together for a particular project, complete the project, and over. This would lend these communities to measurement which could be performed by traditional project management tools. Only thing, communities are not task-forces. The question to answer before we can proceed towards measurement is, to my mind, why these communities are created. Why do we find that people organize themselves into communities? Is it because man is essentially a social animal? I dont think so ... Our social instincts can be satisfied by the world around us. Especially when we are talking about communities in the organizational context. The reason, therefore, has to be a little more complex. Actually, I dont think it is. People form themselves into communities for two reasons ...

1. Because they see value in the communities.
2. Because they can form communities, therefore they do.

I would think, in the organizational context, its the first point which plays an important role in the emergence of communities. Which means that if we are to define the ROI of communities, we need to do this from the perspective of the community members. With a difference ... First of all, we cannot have a cost and value calculation for this, so to this extent this is different from the traditional ROI calculations. To begin with, we could calculate, more in terms of value perceived versus value expected. Remember, communities are as effective or otherwise as their members see them to be. So, the starting point for any such measurement has to be the expectations of the members, and the perceptions of the members. I would think, over a set of people, the answers we get are going to be the aggregated opinion of the community about itself.

Thing is, you ask people, they are not going to reply in terms of numbers. How is a community performing at 60% any different from a community performing at 70%, for example? Its not. So, we need some proxies which can supplement these. Broadly, I think these proxies can be divided into three parts:

1. Membership

2. Activity

3. Interactions

As you can see, any of these dimensions alone would not be enough to determine how a community is shaping up. A large community may actually not be too effective, if these members are not really contributing to the cause of the community. On the other hand, the activity in the community (the number of people logging in regularly to read posts, the number of posts), and the interactions (the number of responses to posts, follow-up posts), alone would not be enough, because in a small community, these may not be reaching a sizeable part of the intended audience. This is, obviously, assuming these to be proxies for the real thing, because the real thing is something we cant really measure, at least not as of now. More on this as I work this out ...

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