Creating Online Communities

It sounds obvious, but without active participation by the people it is intended to serve, a knowledge management system will fail. Communities can help companies to avoid this situation, enhancing the value of vertical portals and exchanges by adding a marketplace of ideas to them. With transaction technology in place, companies are now trying to differentiate themselves and add value by creating communities for customers, partners, vendors and suppliers.

However, building a Web community is not easy. There's no substitute for organic growth, although software tools can help to speed the process. E-mail discussion groups, message boards, chat, instant messaging and online presence indicators are showing up on commercial sites such as, eBay, E*Trade and

The market for such tools is growing with their effectiveness. According to Jupiter Communications, more than 30 percent of consumers will communicate with each other if given the chance, and Forrester Research found that consumers who use community services make more online purchases than the average Web shopper.

"Every site has an audience of users who come because of the content, products or services it offers," says Steve Glenn, president and CEO of PeopleLink Inc. in Santa Monica, Calif. "Giving people a community experience creates a stickier relationship."

Almost any Web site can use integrated service packages and off-the-shelf tools to build communities while continuing to focus on delivering products, services and knowledge. For example, Talk City, a provider of online communities in Campbell, Calif., offers custom community solutions that include chat rooms and discussion boards, private clubs and user home pages, as well as online events, focus groups and surveys. Talk City's customers include Hearst Corp., NBC and starbucks.

This company is not the first to offer chat and messaging services, but it is among just a handful that offer integrated solutions for community applications. Among others, PeopleLink powers message boards and chat rooms at and has run more than 100 event chats since it was installed in 1999. Using its services, for example, members can share best practices about dairy cattle and livestock.

The personal touch

A "one-stop shop" for farmers, of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., gives more than 100,000 users access to industrial services, a marketplace of 30,000 agricultural products, classified ads and auctions for used material, along with research, advice, news and market and weather information. However, the personal interaction of traditional live auctions and town markets was missing, according to stacie Robbins, marketing manager. "The community ties it all together," she says. wanted to build chat, message boards and instant messaging within the site to encourage purchases and enhance the community. It chose PeopleLink to provide an outsourced solution. Farmbid used PeopleLink's proprietary online presence indicator called Plink Light. If a visitor to a message board or auction site has a question about a particular item, Plink Light will indicate whether the author is online and available for a real-time chat.

RealCommunities of Cupertino, Calif., provides software and services to host Web-based communities for members, customers, partners, developers, franchisees, distributors and resellers. RealCommunities' research went beyond market analysis and product development to study the sociology of human communities. The company developed 12 "principles of civilization" on which its products are based. The first of these products, CiviServer Experience, is aimed at high-tech customer support centers and lifestyle Web sites, and helps community members to apply their combined experience to problems related to their common interests.

Adding incentives

Adding community features to a portal or groupware system can extend a company's return on investment in KM, but participation is not guaranteed. Without proper incentives, most people won't actually use the technology.

According to Greg Dyer, senior analyst for knowledge management at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass., people will participate in an online community if they are compensated in some way for their participation. Compensation models vary. Cincinnati-based Clerity Knowledge Exchanges (formerly KnowToday) allows members of a community to charge each other for their knowledge. Its Information Commerce Engine allows vertical or community portals to set up an auction-style knowledge market.

George Luntz, Clerity CEO, says the company is initially focusing on business-to-business and corporate applications where users are already paying for information, such as legal services and IT consulting. Luntz claims that his company's technology is appropriate also for knowledge workers in any vertical industry that is attempting to deliver complex products through multiple channels.

"Our technology allows you to put up a forum where external partners can share information and knowledge between themselves, building a knowledge base that your customer service team has access to and can mine to extend their capabilities," says Luntz.

Internalizing knowledge markets
Some users hope that the knowledge market model can also be used inside large organizations to overcome knowledge workers' reluctance to share what they know. Enterprises Inc. of Vancouver, B.C., Canada, a pioneer in online knowledge auctions, wants to transplant its technology to intranets.

Clerity is working with a large database supplier on implementing a corporate extranet. The company also plans to beef up its community toolkit with third-party indexing, natural language, document management and Web searching tools to collect both explicit and tacit knowledge in one operation.

Even IBM is pursuing this avenue. In August 2000, IBM announced that its knowledge and content management services practice would back up the company's new Community Knowledge Portal with consulting services. IBM Global Services will apply the results of research into social capital assessment and organizational network analysis to assess, design and mobilize communities of practice according to each community's sociological needs and technical requirements.

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