The Sixth Virtual
Communities Conference

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The Sixth Virtual Communities Conference

Organised by Infonortics
Held in London, June 16-17, 2003

Wendy Warr & Associates, 6 Berwick Court, Holmes Chapel, Cheshire, CW4 7HZ, England. Tel/fax +44 (0)1477 533837. Email: wendy@warr.com WWW http://www.warr.com


A few years ago, virtual community enthusiasts talked of forums and chat; nowadays it is all about peer-to-peer computing, blogging, communities of practice (CoPs), and collaborative workflow. Even the buzz word "knowledge management" is losing its appeal as CoPs take over. Most of the slides used at the meeting are available on the Infonortics Web site. I will be reducing the following report to about 1100 words for Information World Review. Unfortunately the meeting was not well attended this year. It deserved a much better audience. There were 82 delegates in all: 52 from the UK, 9 from the Unites States, 5 from Germany, 4 from The Netherlands, 3 from France, 2 from Italy, 2 from Denmark, and 1 each from Canada, Australia, Austria, Japan, and Spain.

Papers Presented

Greg Searle of Tomoye Corporation opened the meeting because the keynote speaker was held up by some London transport snafu. This proved fortunate in terms of themes and audience understanding, since Searle introduced some of the principles of Community of Practice (CoP). To do a job well you need to learn how other people do similar jobs. The medieval guilds were forerunners of CoPs. Etienne Wenger is one of the founders of the recent CoP movement. Searle illustrated Etienne Wenger's best practices ("get rhythm", "know your audience", "delegate", "arm the peasants", "facilitate lurking" etc.) with reference to case studies from the UN and the US Army. There are few manuals to tell company commanders how to deal with death and fear among the troops. Team blogging has proved very effective in this CoP. Traditional knowledge management is dead. The top-down bureaucratic approach does not work. "Guerrilla knowledge management" is bottom-up and more practical.

The keynote speaker, David Snowden of IBM Global Services, debunked most of the conventional wisdom of Wenger and his followers. For hundreds of years, management scientists have assumed that systems are ordered but they are not. If eight companies are making a profit and they all practise Method X, it is not valid to conclude that a ninth company will make a profit if it practises X. It is unpredictable why success is achieved. Some US army officers went to Wall Street and learned how to deal but they lost in their games with dealers. The dealers came to play with the army's electronic simulators and battlefields. The dealers spotted patterns and won the war games. The marines applied best practice and lost. Snowden prefers good practice to best practice. We need to build systems to help pattern recognition.

One of Snowden's rules of knowledge management is that knowledge can only be volunteered; it can't be conscripted. He will not let people share his knowledge, not because of any hang-ups about knowledge being power but because he is concerned about misuse of his knowledge by someone who has only two weeks experience. (I wonder how he feels about journalists trying to report his words of wisdom?)

If you get more than 16 significant emails a day you are being abused. IBM has programmes to detox organisations suffering from the psychological addiction of email: programmes to break the abusive behaviour and shift users into collaborative spaces. Once you add collaboration and blogging and team rooms to email you may find yourself spending 4-5 hours a day on the computer. A clear decisive reason for a community is needed or knowledge will be trivialised and conversation dumbed down. Lurkers are dangerous.

Contrary to what Wenger says, something that occurs once and works cannot be generalised. Boundaries and interventions are needed, not community rules. Snowden cited one organisation with 130,000 staff, 54 communities, and 65,000 informal communities. A team room must have very few people in it: 15 is the maximum for trust to exist, 7-8 may be better. Lots of communities of 15, and a few groups of 150, are the recipe for success. Above that bureaucracy begins.

IBM builds narrative databases: they are cheaper, faster and easier to build than knowledge management systems and they encourage serendipitous enquiry. People do not like to share their failures but sharing stories of failure, without apportioning blame, i.e., a worst practice system, will work. Snowden's daughter used a computer game to build a doll's house where Daddy is always away on business and Mummy and Daddy argue when Daddy comes home. Snowden has given his staff the game to capture anecdotes, helping them achieve a life-work balance. (The next day, the Chairman brought along his teddy bear, so Teddy could take the blame for telling the speakers when they were over-running.)

Joanne Self listed the benefits of 40 communities introduced at Rolls-Royce: fewer meetings, less email, the format for easy sharing of knowledge, the spreading of knowledge as people help each other, improved circulation of information, the common information store for distribution groups, the sharing of good practice, and avoidance of duplication of effort, all within an environment for which no special training is required.

Timothy Butler of SiteScape listed the advantages of CoPs over email. With CoPs you don't need to manage the information: the co-ordinator does that. The information is stored once and managed centrally. Resource is used efficiently: each attachment is stored only once. All the content is searchable. The view of the information is conceptual. Version control is done for you. Comments and discussion are shown with the associated documents. Documents and discussion can be posted by email. All the information is one place and searchable. Executive sponsorship is crucial. Co-ordinators need time and resources. If the benefits are understood, a cultural shift will happen.

Denise Schilling of Hewlett Packard Company demonstrated how CoPs can help after a merger or acquisition by cultivating relationships, establishing trust, getting value from people's abilities and inspiring productivity. After the merger with Compaq, HP faced two challenges: the fact that each company had its own, different knowledge management system and the need to achieve the merger goals very fast. Schilling showed the weighty knowledge management handbook which has been written. It speaks to the CoP model. An alternative is the community of interest model. The company took advantage of existing communities to advance integration efforts, and it expanded CoPs and communities of interest to continue the process. In reality, the company underestimated the distraction of change management issues. People prefer incremental change and they tended to move from paralysis to frantic activity. Some communities persevered and even prospered; some adapted and were assimilated. There is a desire to use a common approach.

The IEEE has facilitated communication and collaboration through virtual communities but a business model needs to be developed, concluded Tara Gallus. Which model? Support through member dues? Pay to join? Pay for what you drink? Advertising? Hybrid model? This dilemma sounds familiar!

George Pór and Erik van Bekkum of CommunityIntelligence organised a conversation with the audience. ECCOP is the European Collaborative for CoPs. What if CoPs could contribute not only to incremental but also to radical innovation? ECCOP has opened a blog on this topic. Almost all the attendees have used blogs but only a handful have experience of corporate blogs: One attendee spoke out strongly against corporate blogging: blogs don't change the environment of a company.

Alexander Hagmeister talked about the community reward programme that SAP has established. A community gives you a chance to see what your customers are doing. Know your customers and change your strategies. SAP also wants to improve its image and keep its customers up to date. It wants proactive members, wants to increase participation. So it gives points for registration, for logging in, for posting a message in a forum, and for participation in surveys. Points can be redeemed for wines, toys and expensive items in the SAP shop. Awareness and use of the programme is high; weekly event participation has increased 136%, and there have been surprisingly few superficial postings in the forums.

Ali Hossaini of Pantar Consulting described various types of community and what makes them successful. Social communities are content-neutral. They have minimal rules and maximal topic lists. They are often member-founded and member-directed. Corporate information communities (e.g., MTV, Guardian Online) are a branch of customer support, PR and marketing. Public information communities (Web sites, blogs and wikis) vary from product reviews to political action groups. During the war in Iraq, it was communities that spread the news that the media were hiding. Personal broadcasting means that individuals compete with government and corporate media. PR must adapt to peer-to-peer and peer-to-many communications. Censorship and litigation are now harder to pull off. An honest dialogue is better than spin and (more) lies. Branding communities should contain a strong element of customer service. Sponsors should be open to dialogue and public criticism. The site should offer tools, entertainment or rewards as well as other community features.

Hossaini distinguished these information communities from communities of practice. CoPs tap into the informal knowledge that falls outside formal hierarchies and documentation, and pool individual resources to enhance organisational performance. They act as an institutional memory, preserving best practices and knowledge artefacts for re-use. They document the undocumentable. They reduce the learning curve, recycle intellectual capital, increase innovation, and allow an organisation to respond more rapidly. CoPs are run by corporations, government and charity, professional associations, schools, universities, and training centres, and stakeholders in a common enterprise. A fundamental challenge is how to use online communication tools to create a social circle between those who need to know and those who do know.

Martin White of Intranet Focus covered collaborative technology solutions. He introduced the four dimensions of collaboration (synchronous, asynchronous, push, and pull) then outlined the features, and challenges, of blogs, wikis, content management, discussion lists, email, instant messaging, intranets, knowledge portals, telephone communication, video conferencing, and virtual meeting applications.

Miranda Mowbray of Hewlett Packard Laboratories gave an interesting presentation on the Grid.

Grid is a type of parallel and distributed system that enables the sharing, selection, and aggregation of geographically distributed "autonomous" resources dynamically at runtime depending on their availability, capability, performance, cost, and users' quality-of-service requirements. (Rajikuma Buyya, GRIDS Lab, University of Melbourne, http://www.gridcomputing.com)

The Grid is not just clustered, distributed, or peer-to-peer computing, or business-to-business communities, or a way of selling hardware, or a way of solving big science problems. Nor is it just hype. Over 400 companies (including HP and IBM) belong to the Global Grid Forum. The Grid needs virtual communities. Examples are Crisis Management Team, Access Grid teleconferencing, IBM's Butterfly.net (video games), and Box and Cox. There are security fears around the Grid (anyone might use your computer and route their computations to it) which might mean that it will never take off. On the other hand, the Internet did. Because of security and billing problems, grid technology is currently used only within companies, by scientific institutions, for outsourcing contracts, and by geeks for fun. Later, it will be used for inter-company collaborations and, non-commercially, by virtual communities.

Much later still, there will be general commercial trading of resources over a global marketplace grid. Anyone will be able to buy and sell resources and eventually there will be only one marketplace grid, with the exception of niche specialist grids and internal company grids. There will be considerable downward pressure on the price of standard resources, and current vendors will lose the advantages of brand, bundling, lock-in, distribution and marketing. There will be arbitrage opportunities for communities; community applications will bloom. Winners will be the providers of applications exploiting grid capabilities, middle income countries (perhaps), the "owner" of the marketplace grid, application users, arbitrageurs, and virtual communities.

Martin Nielson of AltosBanCorp gave an investment banker's perspective on the collaborative software industry. The report "Knowledge Technologies" by Robertson Stephens in 2001 predicted a convergence of content management and publishing, collaboration, e-learning, and data mining and security. It predicted several one billion dollar companies by 2005. Nielson reviewed predictions that the next new software giants would evolve from these fields. He discussed how various knowledge technologies have become mainstream, and the forces of change. He examined some interesting deals (IBM's offer for Rational Software, PeopleSoft's offer for JD Edwards, and Oracle's offer for PeopleSoft) which indicated that it was safe to do such deals, and established a valuation benchmark for them. He shared opinions about why the collaborative software industry is likely to remain in the forefront over the next few years and concluded that, now consolidation is underway, we should plan to be part of it.

Dawn Yankeelov of ASPectx concentrated on healthcare. A July 1999 report found that 90% of the healthcare transactions a year (worth $30 billion) take place by phone, fax or regular mail. Healthcare players have been latecomers to business use of the Internet but have begun to catch up over the last three years. Virtual communities are now socially accepted, technically stable, and economically reasonable. They can be used to disseminate timely information and foster anytime interaction. Yankeelov gave examples of social support intranets, disease awareness sites, professional communities, employee portals, partnerships for compliance and plug-and-play tools for pharmaceutical e-marketing. She named Health on the Internet Foundation as the standard for health sites.

Ian Bilsborough described learning networks at the Countryside Agency, implemented by Sift, which was represented by the paper's co-author, Ian Pickles. The Agency has planned 60 networks and 14 of them are now live. There is a geographic or project-based focus to each network. Each has smart, measurable objectives. Access is member-only with both private and public sub-groups. A part-time expert facilitator for each network has been trained, supported by a dedicated facilitators' network. Engaging members has presented challenges: persuading people to register, fears of the technology, the need for leadership from the top in each network area, encouraging members to revisit, login issues for member-only areas, and confusion over private sub-groups. Tactics to promote and support engagement were withdrawing online distribution of materials, posting new content fast and regularly, stimulating debate through comments and forums, and ensuring member control over automatic alerting.

Mark Brogan of Edith Cowan University talked about sustainability, ecology and community building in connection with the Cape Range Ningaloo project in Western Australia. At the start of the project, the leaders convinced themselves that a vertical market portal ("vortal"), a relic of the dotcom era, could be reinvented as an industry hub. They wanted to see if a sustainable community could be built in a remote real community. SMS integration was a key facility: young people are interested in SMS and weblogs and consider PC virtual communities old-fashioned. Use of MySQL and Cold Fusion gives members the role of mounting content. This gives them a feeling of ownership. Other tactics are incubation, and helping small and medium enterprises build an e-strategy. Wireless integration offers an incentive for ecotourism operators.

According to Hannelore Grams of Ogilvy Interactive, one tactic of customer relationship marketing (CRM - the term used was "marketing " not "management") is to identify the high value customer and find what drives him. Grams showed how CRM tasks can be supported through online communities with reference to a bank (www.dab-bank.com), a shareholder community (www.ich-bin-on.de), an awareness community (E-on, electricity), a multiple sclerosis site supported by Schering (www.ms-gateway.de), and the SAP relationship community at www.sap.com. An online community is sustainable as a tool of CRM provided that you are sure you will achieve critical mass in the target group and you know your goals for establishing the community.

Hazel Hall of Napier University has carried out a research project studying the motivations to share knowledge in an e-group of code-breaking enthusiasts, the Cipher Challenge. The £10,000 prize was not the only motivation. Social support continued after the prize had been won. Lurkers in this group were not popular. The lessons learned from Hall's study could be applied to the communities of commercial organisations, where there may be greater scope for rewarding knowledge sharing than there is in a recreational group.

ICP Europe Publishing is a business publisher. Business people have difficulty in "trusting" any new community service. In some forums, trust does not matter but in business it does: money is involved and the aim is to do business. Site owners need methods, other than their logos, for conveying trustworthiness, especially since it costs £320 to acquire a fully registered member from cold. This prompted a research programme by ICP and associated companies, the interim results of which Ian Jindal reported. Trust is given on a case by case basis; reputation is the aggregate of previous trusted transactions. Nine possible "badges of trust" are being studied: profit-seeking motive; the number of transactions; the nature of the asset; existence of similar trading transactions or interests; modifications of the asset; the way the sale was carried out; tone, presentation and completion; the source of finance; and interval of time between purchase and sale.

The style of each message, comment or article you generate in an online community leaves a snail-trail of social information, said Lizzie Jackson of the BBC. You build a digital reputation by establishing an online identity, accumulating points as rewards for buying and selling on auction sites, and using recommendation and review engines. Factors that diminish reputation include non-delivery of goods, misrepresentation (giving false information about the goods), triangulation, fee stacking (charging for extras), offering black market goods, multiple bidding (which causes prices to rise) and fake bidding. Although fraud and identity theft are still rife in the United States, the news is not all bad: people are increasingly buying, swapping and interacting generally on the Internet and on mobiles, and profits are up for some of the big sites which combine reputation systems with e-commerce. Reputation systems work well with auctions but can create a negative hierarchy in purely social communities. Jackson was positive about recommendation and review engines and dotcom survival technique. A high level of security is needed and an incredibly high investment.

The final speaker was Andrew Ross of Oxford University who has used cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) in studying three adult online learning communities (US medical students, law students, and London black cab drivers acquiring "the knowledge") and, in particular, how they seed themselves with conflict. There were three papers on networks for children or schools, earlier in the meeting, which I have not reported.


"Since the beginning of history, human beings have formed communities that accumulate collective learning into social practices: communities of practice. Tribes are an early example. More recent instances include the guilds of the Middle Ages. …What is new is the need for organisations to become more intentional and systematic about "managing" knowledge."
Etienne Wenger


Etienne Wenger, Richard A. McDermott and William Snyder Cultivating Communities of Practice. Harvard Business School Press: Boston; 2002. ISBN: 1578513308 1.

Etienne Wenger Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press: New York; 1998.

Web sites

Conference Web site http://infonortics.com/vc/index.html
Etienne Wenger's home page http://www.ewenger.com
Global Grid Forum http://www.gridforum.org
Collaborative Strategies http://www.collaborate.com
Health on the Internet Foundation http://www.hon.ch
ECCOP blog http://www.ECCOP.com/blogs/public

The following web sites provide lists of collaborative software products.


A wiki is a collaboration tool: a Web site where the pages can be changed and instantly published using only a Web browser. No programming is required. Pages are automatically created and linked to each other. A wiki is a way of creating a document socially. "Wiki wiki" is Hawaiian for "quick".

This page last updated 23rd February 2006