Forums & Discussion Boards – for Problem Solving and Idea Sharing

Have you ever asked an online group in your organisation to put a price on the value gained from sharing ideas? Have they saved time, shared knowledge or provided new opportunities? 

We think you’ll be surprised at how quickly the value, and dollars saved, adds up. But it’s important to be purposeful and focused when establishing an online forum. 

This post continues on our theme for addressing the different group types typically found on Enterprise Social Network (ESN) platforms. After email, online forums are one of the most pervasive applications for online collaboration. Dating from the 1970s and variously called bulletin boards, email lists, newsgroups, expert groups and more recently Internet forums; they have become the home for online informal knowledge and information sharing. Q&A help sites are prolific across all aspects of human endeavor these days, so it was not surprising that these facilities would emerge inside the enterprise.  

BHP maintenance engineers.

For large organisations in particular, the facility to share expertise across diverse geographic locations is particularly attractive. In my time working in knowledge management there has been a plethora of expensive technical tools available, most targeted at storing and sharing documents. However, it was the simpler, informal Q&A facilities that generated the most value. A network of more than 2,000 maintenance engineers within global resources company BHP used a simple email list server to post operational questions, which were regularly answered by fellow engineers anywhere in the world. Likewise, at global IT firm Computer Sciences Corporation (now DXC), its simple ‘Request for Assistance’ system, which similarly sought assistance with typically technical problems, proved far more valuable than the costly web portal systems being developed in parallel.  

Best Practice Q&A Forums  

The key learning from these experiences with help forums is that they need to be grounded in operational contexts to thrive. Sharing and solving problems that affect a larger proportion of participants in the enterprise will ensure the forum remains active and valued. It is important not to over-complicate the forum with too many features, for example, information management features, separate sign-ons etc. High value forums emphasize ease of participation. I have seen many instances of a successful forum being migrated to a ‘more functional’ technology platform and losing the core of its membership, simply because the new platform demanded more effort to engage. 

In contrast to a Community of Practice described previously, forums will often see communities amongst most active members emerge. Overall though, our benchmarking studies show they are also not unduly collaborative. Once a posted question gains its responses, an extended engagement between the participants is not anticipated. They are popular because of the feeling of instant gratification if an annoying problem you are encountering can be quickly solved. Technical forums, in particular, are well suited to instant gratification Q&A and those regular responders can quickly develop an online reputation for their expertise; something they are unlikely to develop outside the forum. For those communities that might organically emerge from a forum, it is best to re-host these in their own community of practice space; or run the risk of confusing ‘newbies’ with more detailed and sophisticated discussions that these communities would have. 

We recommend separating your communities that emerge from forums into their own space. 

We often find that our online ‘Experts’ are the quiet achievers in our networks. I can vividly recall an exercise I undertook many years ago to recognise these online ‘Experts’ through analytics (see SWOOP Most Influential People as a current example), where the CEO became so excited to see ‘shop floor’ engineers sharing their knowledge, that he committed to personally shaking the hand of each identified engineer, no matter where in the world they worked. 

For Q&A forums, aim to ground the activity in operational level contexts that can engage the operational core of your organisation. 

Innovation Forums 

Another popular use of forums is to share ideas and facilitate innovation. Unlike a Q&A forum, the initial posting is a proposed new idea. Responses are then in the form of reinforcements (‘Likes’), improvement suggestions (building on the idea) and even rejections (‘this can’t work and here’s why’). Rather than launching an idea space by just asking people to post any idea that comes into their head, it is best to encourage your leadership to post questions or challenges the organisation is facing, both long term and short. In this way, ideas start with an identified business focus and thereby have a far stronger chance of progressing to adoption. 

There exists several platforms developed to specifically facilitate innovation. For example, innovation platform Spigit, uses gaming methods to create a new venture-style marketplace environment, where ideas can attract ‘investors’ and gain value through attracting a large number of investors. The most highly valued ideas are then shortlisted for implementation assessment. Other platforms like Sideways 6 provide an ideas management layer over existing ESN platforms like Yammer and Workplace by Facebook.  

There is much to choose from. It is important to note that an innovation is not achieved until an idea is implemented. Innovation platforms tend to be very good at surfacing and sharing ideas. They appear less effective at facilitating the process right through to implementation. It is regularly the case that those in the organisation that are good at developing and sharing ideas are the least able to sustain the focus required to acquire and harness the resources required to implement an idea. 

Be sure that if you have established an Ideas Management facility that you have a clear process for the selection, resourcing and implementation. 

Technology Platforms Supporting Forums 

While there are many options for hosting forums externally, inside the enterprise we have seen the ESN replace email list servers as the preferred forum hosts. These platforms provide a place where multiple forums can be easily established and promoted across the enterprise. While perhaps not as functional as popular external forums like the all topics Quora or software developers Stackoverflow, they have the advantage of also hosting communities of practice and often teams on the same platform. Using the ESN as a ‘one size fits all’ platform can be particularly attractive, especially for the IT infrastructure folks. The downside is that it becomes all too easy to develop ‘one size fits all’ groups to cover multiple purposes, and in the end, not effectively meeting any. 

We recommend being purposeful and focused when establishing a forum and don’t try to dual or multipurpose it as a community and/or a team site.  

When you partition your groups for a single purpose, it becomes much easier to set and measure goals for success. For example, the ‘number of problems solved’ for the Q&A style forum. Ask the beneficiaries to nominate a $ value gained, either in terms of time saved or new opportunities provided, and you will be surprised how quickly the dollars add up. For an innovation forum, the ‘number of ideas implemented’ provide a simple measure of new value created. 

Closing Comments 

Forums are the most prolific and visible use of Internet-enabled communication platforms. In general, the larger the number for active forum participants, the more valued is the forum. It is therefore the larger enterprises with geographically dispersed staff who stand to gain the most from online forums.  

From the very earliest days of Knowledge Management, there has been something enthralling about seeing a problem experienced by someone in one part of the world being solved by a complete stranger from some other far flung corner of the planet; or an innovation emerge from the collective efforts of geographically dispersed staff.  

In the words of World-Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee: 

The web is more a social creation than a technical one. I designed it for a social effect – to help people work together – and not as a technical toy. 

Tim Berners-Lee



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