Online communities can thrive when everyone in an organization can participate in the conversation. But most community-building software provides only the raw materials without a structure to facilitate and promote a continuing dialog.
The technology alone is not enough, says Elise Olding, vice president of knowledge, e-learning and collaboration in Berkeley, Calif., for the Hurwitz Group, an e-business consultancy. "There has to be an organizational component that helps people understand why they have these tools, how they should use them, what the vision is behind creating communities and how it's going to make their lives better."
eRoom, PlaceWare and Lotus Development's QuickPlace provide tools but don't define the roles that make online communities mirror their real-world counterparts. Communispace from Communispace Corp. of Cambridge, Mass., includes common features of shared virtual workplace software such as document sharing, real-time discussions and instant messaging. But to them it adds functions to promote the social, emotional and intellectual development of the community: brainstorming tools, member profiles and mechanisms for members to introduce themselves. The product also offers areas for storing private journals and public multimedia exhibits.
Unique to Communispace is its infrastructure for brainstorming "in which there is genuine sharing of mind and people build one idea on another," says Kathy Curley, senior vice president at Communispace. Brainstorming cycles generally last a week or two and can include as many as 200 participants. The process has four stages, which the developers designed with input from research showing that both divergent and convergent thinking are required for creativity. After generating ideas for one week, participants categorize other people's ideas, then establish criteria for the most promising approaches and vote to determine the best solutions.
During the process, participants assume roles such as master facilitator, brainstorming session convener and dialogue facilitator. There are also voluntary roles with intriguing titles such as artist, pulse-taker, jester, greeter, evocateur and protector. The role-based software tries to reflect the kind of collaboration that takes place in offline communities, unlike other groupware products such as Lotus Notes, whose implied democracy of responsibilities often prevents an idea from moving beyond the initial proposal phase.
Communispace also attempts to make the community self-conscious. Its Climate component helps participants to measure and understand how people are feeling about the community. Another feature called Virtual Café gives dispersed employees a way to meet and learn about each other through pictures and profiles. "These all go a little farther down the road to establishing trust in a community," says Hurwitz Group's Olding.
Communispace can run as a standalone application or be integrated with portals or other tools. "We provide the environment for communities to do their work virtually, to build the relationships that are important to them and to have the kinds of innovative activities, decision-making and dialogues that allow them to move forward," Curley says.