Getting the Best out of Online Groups at Work

The digital workplace has spawned a limitless opportunity to form online groups. Today, organisations can have staff participating in groups emerging through enterprise social, team messaging, online conferencing and a plethora of external groups like LinkedIn and Facebook. No matter the source of their formation, there are some common needs that must be articulated if an online group is to be a success or not. The first step is to be mindful of the type, and therefore, purpose of the online group you are forming. There are vast differences between a group established to share news, to one to support a project team, to one to develop new work practices. The common collaboration platforms may try to help you when you look to create a new group, like this example from Workplace by Facebook: 

All collaboration tools will ask whether your group is private or public. Even this simple classification can tell you something about the intent of the group, with public groups more likely centred on broad-based information sharing. The more modern collaboration tools, like Slack and MS Teams, by their nature are message sharing systems for team structures. That said, they also offer the opportunity to classify your team as ‘public’, and by this inferring a larger membership and an intent centred around information sharing, more so than team collaboration.  

In practice many groups are started by people without a clear idea of what success might look like for their group, other than the initial need to attract members. And teams may morph or change over time. For example, a group set up as a project team may be sustained as a general information sharing group, well past when the project has been completed. An Open Discussion group may need to morph into a team if the discussions lead to the need for more active collaboration to happen. One might like to think that new ‘fit for purpose’ groups would be formed, but convenience often dictates the keeping of ‘all purpose’ groups, which can make it very difficult to achieve traction when multiple purposes are being served. 

“Natural” Group Forms 

A number of organisations have acknowledged much of the nomenclature for their online groups are not necessarily reflective of what is really going on. For example, is it feasible that the online HR Team group with 300 members is really acting like a team? To discover what was really going on, some organisations have undertaken to analyse the patterns of conversations in their online groups, in order to infer what the group types really were. An early study by IBM Research analysed 188 active online communities operating within IBM and found a huge diversity in the way these online groups were operating. They determined five different types of activities: Communities of Practice, Teams, End user technical support, Idea Labs and Recreation. The classification of the groups into the above types was determined by surveying the owners and asking them to nominate a type. The researchers also conducted a validation of these group owner reports. They then explored each group type looking for how they were distinguished in terms of the membership, participation rate, content shared and relationships formed. It was interesting to note that those owners self-classifying their group as a “team” had on average 416 members and 37% participation. Are these really teams in the most conventional sense?  

In collaboration with the University of Sydney’s Digital Disruption Research group, we undertook a data driven approach to identify whether we could find any natural clusters of group types and what factors work best to discriminate them. The university analysed more than 80 groups from three different organisations using data from the SWOOP analytics dashboards. Indeed, the research uncovered four natural groupings:


The group types were delineated by three factors: The group reciprocity, the Gini index, which is a measure of dispersion, and the group density. While these factors do not map directly to SWOOP measures, they are approximated by the SWOOP %Two-way relationships, Diversity and Activity/User scores. Using the discriminating factors, the research team applied labels to each of the four clusters as follows: 

Whether we rely on owner self-reporting or data driven analysis, it is suffice to say that online groups are being used for:  

  1. Teams;
  2. Communities of Practice; 
  3. Forums/discussion boards, for technical problem solving, idea sharing; 
  4. Announcements/News broadcasting; and 
  5. Non-work recreation. 

You might suggest that we could ignore the “non-work recreation” group type. We are, however, consistently reminded that many of these groups, whether they are for sharing pet stories, best restaurant recommendations or the more humane mission topics like LGBTI and Domestic Violence groups, can capture strong beliefs that exist within our staff. One of our larger clients indicated that the marriage equality debate was the most active thread on their Yammer site ever! How the leadership engages with these groups, or not, can send a strong cultural signal across the whole organisation. 

Digging Deep to Uncover the Real Value Indicators 

To ensure that your organisation achieves the most value from its online groups, we should not be applying a “one size fits all” approach to our group analytics. Each of the above group types demands a bespoke analytics approach. By relying on generic group measures like membership, activity and participation alone, we are potentially missing out on the key indicators we need to drive real value from these groups. 

In our follow up blog posts, we will be looking to dig deeper into each of the nominated groups types. What should success look like? Just what is best practice? How can analytics help guide these groups to success? We are aiming to provide some practical tips for each type of group, to be freely shared amongst your group leaders. 

Stay tuned! 

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