Community orientations and technology – what features does your online community need?

Recently, I’ve been exploring “Digital Habitats” by Wenger, White and Smith, which talks about the role of technology stewards in selecting, implementing and encouraging adoption of online tools and community platforms. Tech stewards sound like a very specific type of community manager.

Use this wheel to mark out the importance of the 9 different orientations to your community.
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The book has lots of practical advice about the use of technology by communities of practice. While the overall menu of different tools and features that are available to a community may be large, typically members will not need them all because their community will be focused on only a few activities. The authors call these different types of group needs “orientations” and list out nine of them.

The 9 orientations of communities of practice

1. Meetings

  • Need: In this orientation, online tools are used to meet in real time or asynchronously.
  • Possible tech requirements: Scheduling tools, video conferencing, back channel chat such as IM, note-taking, recording.
  • Considerations: How big are the meetings? How many people are attending synchronously versus using the outputs later? What tools are required to organise the meetings and share their outputs?
  • Success looks like: Regular meetings that are well-attended with enthusiastic participants and useful outputs.

2. Open-ended conversations 

  • Need: Ongoing open-ended conversations as ways of learning together – may be single-streams of conversation, multiple topics in parallel or a distributed system of different content types such as blog posts, emails, IMs.
  • Possible tech requirements: Email, blogs, wikis, IM, access control, archiving.
  • Considerations: Enough activity that the community feels alive without an overwhelming volume of updates; well-organised archives so that previous conversations can be found and consulted not re-hashed.
  • Success looks like: Regular postings and responses – plus likely to be a large number of silent readers

3. Projects

  • Need: Working together as a group to produce something – might be co-authoring, resolving a problem or delivering something for a larger group.
  • Possible tech requirements: Co-authoring tools, screensharing, whiteboards, subgroups, project management tools.
  • Considerations: How formal does the organisation of this group need to be? Is there a set deadline? If it’s a subgroup, how will outputs be communicated to the larger community?
  • Success looks like: Produce something as a result of interacting together e.g. a proposed solution, a piece of written work or some other recommendation.

4. Content – creating, sharing, providing access to documents, tools, other materials

  • Need: Creating, sharing, and discovering useful content.
  • Possible tech requirements: File uploading, tagging, search, permissions, ratings, archiving.
  • Considerations: A rich repository of content can quickly becomes a mess if there’s no obvious way to search it and to archive out of date materials. Is there a centralised taxonomy? Who’s responsible for organising the materials? Will additional materials be appended to primary objects later e.g. example lesson plans?
  • Success looks like: Regular addition of new materials, downloading of existing materials, signs the materials are being used in some way e.g. appending of case studies, feedback, edits etc.

5. Access to expertise

  • Need: Members wish to be able to access information from experts via Q&As, mentoring or other methods.
  • Possible tech requirements: Q&A threads, private and public discussion capabilities, badging of experts, upvoting of quality contributions, member directories, ability to follow experts.
  • Considerations: How will expertise be declared and assessed? Do users declare their own specialties on a profile and/or via contributions? What’s the required response time to questions for answers to be useful?
  • Success looks like: Fast and trustworthy responses to calls for expertise; ability to locate experts on demand.

6. Relationships

  • Need: Finding, connecting, and learning about others and being able to interact with them.
  • Possible tech requirements: search, IM, tags, member directories, blogs, photos, personal profiles and/or pages.
  • Considerations: Do members want to share information beyond the core topic of the group? How open is the community? How important is building trust?
  • Success looks like: Networking, references to personal lives, friendly tone of conversations – possible plans to meet up, do something “extra” for or with others.

7. Individual participation – allowing users to customise their interactions with content and people e.g. Content subscriptions/RSS, profile privacy etc

  • Need: The ability to make learning from and within the group a personal experience
  • Possible tech requirements: subscriptions e.g. RSS, filters, communications preferences, recommendations, time zone and profile visibility settings
  • Considerations: how much does the group require a common set of regular participation activities versus individual ownership of learning and participating?
  • Success looks like: Diversity is respected so several different participation styles may be in evidence and yet the group still feels coherent.

8. Community cultivation – building of a core group of engaged members with internal and/or external facilitation

  • Need: The group desires a strong sense of community which may be cultivated and maintained by a core group of internal or external facilitators (community managers).
  • Possible tech requirements: Newsletter, blog, IM, metrics, top contributor badges, polling tools
  • Considerations: What metrics do the community managers need to assess and reward the activities of community members? How important is subject matter expertise to their legitimacy in the community?
  • Success looks like: There’s evidence of content planning and materials are high quality and well organised. If a member has questions these are likely to receive a prompt response.

9. Serving a context

  • Need: Mechanisms for the community tools, content and members to interface with others e.g as part of a broader organisation or public mission.
  • Possible tech requirements: APIs, access controls, RSS feeds, public pages, single sign on systems.
  • Considerations: If the community’s outputs are serving a public mission or are for wider dissemination within an organisation do they need translating in some way? Does this require someone(s) in boundary-spanning roles? Are some items within the community broadly accessible while others remain restricted?
  • Success looks like: Community members are engaged within their context and recognition and resources are also coming from outside the community.

Working with the 9 orientations

  • Firstly, using the spider chart above, indicate with a dot for each of the orientations, how important they are in your community. The scale goes from 0 – 5 for each orientation, where 0 is irrelevant and 5 is very important.
  • Join the dots to create the spider diagram.
  • Do one or two orientations emerge as more dominant in your community or do you have an even spread?
  • If you have one or several dominant orientations do you have the tools or features in place for those activities e.g if meetings (orientation 1) are a core part of your community do you have online video conferencing and some way of taking and sharing minutes in real time?
  • If you asked your community members to fill in the chart, do you think they would indicate the same orientations i.e. are your intended uses for the community aligned with those of the members?
  • Has the shape of your chart changed over time as your community has evolved? e.g maybe you started out as a project oriented group but now that the project has ended the emphasis has shifted to content archiving and sharing.

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