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Seven steps to building electronic communities
By: Developer Shed
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    2003-08-09

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    Seven steps to building electronic communities

    By Philippa Gamse and Terry Grunwald

    Table of Contents

    Introduction
    Step 1: Develop a networking plan
    Step 2: Select a networking "platform"
    Step 3: Market to your users
    Step 4: Training and technical support
    Step 5: Set up and manage a public online information forum
    Step 6: Using networks for collaboration and problem solving
    Step 7: Creating the spirit of community

    Introduction

    This document provides a set of guidelines to aid managers in:

    • assessing your organization's current readiness to network
    • identifying activities which are most appropriate for the telecommunications environment
    • evaluating existing systems, or deciding to develop an independent network
    Additionally, once the technology issues are resolved, we suggest methods for:

    • attracting appropriate users and sustaining their interest and participation
    • developing a plan for user training and technical support
    • determining the scope, content, and format for the promotion of public information
    • establishing a "feel" or "culture" for the network
    • generating creative ways to utilize the network to maximum advantage

    [Table of Contents]

    Step 1: Develop a networking plan

    A. Define your community

    • Will this be a community of individuals, organizations or a combination?
    • Is there a common agenda? a vision?
    • Does the group already work collaboratively?
    • Is there a core group with the capacity to network during the planning phase?
    • Who else needs to participate within the next 1-3 years?
    • Who might be connected in the future?
    • Connection to other existing and planned online communities:
      Is anyone doing similar things in your community? in the region/state/nationally?
    • If so: how do their activities compare with your plans?
      1. where are the gaps in what is accomplished?
      2. are there opportunities for collaboration?

    B. Identify the needs electronic networking might address

    • Cost-effective communication / information sharing with multiple sites
    • Collaborative work (e.g. co-authoring documents to be edited and revised)
    • Easily-updated library of information and record of organizational history
    • Searchable relational databases, research opportunities using Internet tools
    • Public visibility via Internet gophers and World Wide Web pages
    • A private forum/conference to plan strategy
    • A means of disseminating wide scale ALERTS for lobbying efforts
    • Ongoing dialogue and debate through moderated Usenet newsgroups and mailing lists
    • "Real time" online discussions
    • An informal, online gathering place to build relationships

    C. Survey your potential users

    • How do they currently communicate?
    • Is there consensus on a common agenda?
    • Do they agree with the needs you've outlined?
    • What tasks would they like to accomplish online?
    • What kind of hardware (computer / modem / mouse) do they have, if any?
      Are they using a local area office network?
    • Are they computer literate?
    • Do they have access to:
      1. training opportunities
      2. technical assistance?
    • How much can they afford to spend per month on telecommunications?
    • What kind of information are they willing to share?
    • Who else do they want to participate?
    • What's their vision for your online community?

    D. Determine which of the following resources you will need:

    • A committed facilitator and / or information specialist
    • A skilled system operator (sysop) / Internet guru
    • Additional information providers
    • Clerical support
    • Computer hardware / software
    • A method of inputting large amounts of information (eg, scanner)
    • Subsidies to support the participation of financially-strapped users
    • Grants to support facilitator/information provider activities
    • Basic computer training for novice users
    • Technical support / computer mentoring for users
    • Ongoing source for funding for the years it will take to make the community self-sufficient

    [Table of Contents]

    Step 2: Select a networking "platform"

    A. Go-it-alone: Setting up your own BBS

    • What are your hardware needs? Enough storage for growth? Phone lines?
    • What features should the software have?
    • Can you customize existing software to meet your needs / will you develop your own?
    • Do you have an experienced sysop?
    • Will you have Internet connectivity?
    • Are there no existing resources which can meet your needs?
    • Might you be "reinventing the wheel?"

    B. Selecting an existing "host" network. Issues to consider:

    • Ease of use
    • Compatibility among different operating systems
    • Availability of functions identified in your needs assessment, eg:
      1. group e-mail;
      2. ability to send disk files & faxes;
      3. conferencing with message threading; private discussion areas; keyword search; etc.
    • Costs:
      1. proprietary software;
      2. one time and monthly subscription;
      3. online charges (peak / off-peak);
      4. availability of toll-free or local untimed call access.
    • Connectivity to other networks, echoing of bulletin boards, level of Internet facilities
    • Who are the current users? Quality of current information? Quality of communications?
    • Availability and type of technical support, training and documentation
    • Ability to delegate management functions to you & your facilitator(s)
    • Stability of host: Are costs likely to rise or fall?

    C. Get your core group online and planning as quickly as possible

    • Use e-mail gateways/Internet
    • Develop simple protocols
    • Make it as informal as possible
    • Select an interim facilitator
    • Pursue fundraising as needed

    [Table of Contents]

    Step 3: Market to your users

    Marketing Hints

    • Define the unique selling points of the network to your community
    • Concentrate on getting the high profile users online first
    • Where possible, market to the decision-makers within an organization
    • Use network demonstrations with overhead projectors. Know which features you want to showcase, and make sure there is plenty of recent, high quality information online
    • Plan to participate in major conferences attended by your target audience.
    • Try to get on the formal agenda
    • Make sure marketing materials can be easily revised. Things change quickly!

    [Table of Contents]

    Step 4: Training and technical support

    A. Why train?

    • Computerphobia
    • Manuals are often poorly written, overwhelming in their detail, and intimidating to non-technical people
    • Internet tools, while improving, are still extremely complex
    • Users need both basic training and tips to use software more efficiently
    • Opportunity for users to share experiences and build relationships

    B. Develop a training plan

    • Identify trainers (preferably members of your online community)
    • Explore opportunities for hands-on training at conferences & other events
    • Provide for advanced training as well
    • Develop a training curriculum which goes beyond the mechanics to include "real work" activities and homework
    • If group is dispersed, consider a series of online exercises
    • Develop a simple step-by-step protocol for those not interested in using the more sophisticated features
    • Create a "buddy system" to pair experienced networkers with novices
    • Use all online resources of your "host": online tours, help features, etc.
    • Don't put all your resources into an initial training. Staff turnover will necessitate ongoing training.
    • **Avoid jargon. Go slow. Be patient.

    C. Develop a technical support plan

    • Suggest users get compatible hardware and software
    • Encourage users to identify computer support options including volunteers in their own communities.
    • Potential resources include:
      1. local colleges
      2. computer vendors
      3. computer user groups
      4. BBS enthusiasts
    • If you provide technical support directly, set your limits. Will you offer general computer support or only respond to network-related problems?

    [Table of Contents]

    Step 5: Set up and manage a public online information forum

    A. Why have an public information area?

    • Supplements e-mail communication
    • Creates an online "home" you can customize for your community
    • Provides an organizational memory for new generations of users
    • Serves as a link to other communities on your host network
    • Gives your issues greater visibility
    • Possible recruiting tool

    B. Tips for managing a forum

    • Have a paid facilitator if at all possible. Facilitation needs tend to grow; not diminish
    • Consult with experienced newsgroup or mailing list moderators
    • Identify and post the kinds of information most important to your users
    • Make sure the information is relevant, timely, and posted at regular intervals
    • Encourage all users to post items, make it as easy as possible, applaud every contribution
    • Make the forum simple to access, navigate, and search. Remove outdated items. Keep the information fresh
    • Keep up to date with technological developments, eg multi-media applications

    [Table of Contents]

    Step 6: Using networks for collaboration and problem solving

    A. How can networks promote collaboration?

    • Allows communication with a dozen or even hundreds of users as easily as with one (group addresses)
    • Expands the pool of practitioners available to respond to inquiries and calls to action
    • Reinforces existing relationships within your community and creates new ones
    • Maintains the momentum created at conferences
    • Promotes co-authoring of proposals

    B. Tips for successful online collaboration

    • Create enough value on the network that it becomes indispensable for the work of the community
    • Seek out opportunities for occasional face-to-face meetings to reinforce online activities
    • Establish a formal 'buy-in" to the process of collaboration
    • Document and publicize your successes
    • Practice what you preach. Use the net wherever possible for your own planning and administrative activities
    • Nudge people -- nicely, but consistently
    • Understand and respect the limitations of networks

    [Table of Contents]

    Step 7: Creating the spirit of community

    Environmental hints:

    • An informal style of communication helps build a sense of community
    • Networking is an exercise in electronic democracy. Facilitators should try to empower as many users as possible to actively contribute
    • Be inclusive and remember that many users will "read only" at first and need to be coaxed to participate
    • Expect to handhold, encourage, and cheerlead. Positive strokes only!!!
    • The core group should try to model the culture of networking in their online discussions
    • Use networks to sustain the relationships formed elsewhere

    The authors would welcome your comments, ideas or questions.

    Philippa Gamse, (831) 465-0317 or by e-mail at pgamse@CyberSpeaker.com

    Terry Grunwald, (919) 846-8899, or by e-mail at tgrunwald@mindspring.com

    Copyright Philippa Gamse. All rights reserved.
    Byline
    Philippa Gamse, "CyberSpeakerSM", is a professional speaker and e-commerce consultant. She helps her clients develop e-business and marketing strategies to gain maximum competitive advantage. Philippa can be reached on (831) 465-0317, or at http://www.CyberSpeaker.com/

    DISCLAIMER: The content provided in this article is not warranted or guaranteed by Developer Shed, Inc. The content provided is intended for entertainment and/or educational purposes in order to introduce to the reader key ideas, concepts, and/or product reviews. As such it is incumbent upon the reader to employ real-world tactics for security and implementation of best practices. We are not liable for any negative consequences that may result from implementing any information covered in our articles or tutorials. If this is a hardware review, it is not recommended to open and/or modify your hardware.

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