Building communities and enabling collaboration: tools and techniques for your website or intranet
Back in the days when the mass take up of social media was still in the future, websites were often the hub for communities – forums and bulletin boards were where discussion and collaboration would take place and where communities would live and flourish.
With the ubiquitous rise of Facebook and social media in general, forums became ghost towns: redundant or niche. Communities moved over to Facebook, as that's where the conversation was happening and, probably more importantly, it was ‘free’ (unless you count your soul) for organisations to set up community pages or groups.
An important requirement of many of our NGO and nonprofit clients is community building: how to energise their supporters or audience and give them a platform to communicate, collaborate and share experiences and resources.
So we often get asked about building forums or similar and we usually have the same stock answer – yes, we can, but is it worth it?
We usually follow on from this answer by asking where their community is currently housed. Where are the conversations currently happening? And there is usually an answer. It’s a Facebook group, a Twitter thread, a Slack Workspace…
With this in mind, our approach to community building and collaboration on a website or intranet is one of consolidation. With a larger organisation with a mature intranet, we look to append existing functionality with additional tools that aid in collaboration. With smaller organisations or start-ups, we look to promote existing networks and aid in their discoverability.
Below are some examples of more strategic tools and techniques that can be appended to your existing website or intranet to add useful collaboration functionality, as well as being a small start in building up a larger community space.
Directories of contacts are quite commonplace in most intranets but can be overlooked or are just a list of names and contact details. However, contact directories are an obvious starting point to getting people together. We often refer to this kind of functionality as ‘matchmaking’ but it is not enough to just list out names, contact details and division or job titles. Using a taxonomy to list our interests or potential opportunities gives more insight when people are looking for collaboration. List out specialties and areas of interest. Tie in your contact directory with some of the concepts below.
There are some amazing collaboration tools that already exist and to some extent are ‘free’: Slack for messaging, the Google suite for collaboration on documents, ClickUp for planning, tasks and Gantt charts… and many more. Rather than trying to rebuild these tools, which would be an expensive process, gathering links and ways to access these platforms in one place is a useful way of using your website to promote and activate collaboration.
A searchable and filterable database of ‘activities’ or projects, that holds explanations, descriptions and links to the various tools used is a technique we have used a few times when our clients stakeholders already are active on these platforms. Rather than reinventing the wheel, consolidating links and access to these platforms in one place can give visibility to your activity and also means you have one destination where stakeholders can visit to see what is going on and how they can get involved.
Many of the platforms and services mentioned above have ways of integrating into your platform, meaning you can also offer a way of signing up or accessing these services.
Question and answer functionality is probably the most similar to a forum and we often refer to this as ‘forum lite’. It can be an extension to an existing intranet or a stand-alone piece of functionality. This gives your stakeholders the ability to post a question and tag it with a topic from an existing taxonomy. Anyone who has expressed an interest in the tagged topic can be notified that there is a question they could add their expertise to. The person posing the question would then be notified when questions have been answered and other interested parties could also follow the discussion, also being notified when new answers or comments appear.
As with many collaboration tools, seeding them with content and activity to get conversations and collaboration started really helps with engagement.
You will notice that notifications play a key part in the suggestion above. It's no longer acceptable to think that your audience will come to you; many people rely on that little red mark against an app icon to let them know action needs to be taken. Ideally, users are notified because they have actively expressed an interest in a subject and a notification is sent when there is something to look at. We can also digest content within the notification delivery method so users might be consuming content straight from their inbox.
As mentioned above, often an organisation's digital workplace is a set of third party tools all used in conjunction with each other. These kinds of tools can be set up well but quite often it's the processes, rules and guidance around their usage that make them work and gain traction with potential users. Without a well thought out governance framework, these tools can be misused or just add to the noise.
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel or think you can move whole communities who are already working and collaborating together using other tools and platforms. Consolidate and signpost instead.