Online communities have the answer

FCW's Dot-Gov Thursday column looks at electronic collaboration as a way to enhance responsiveness

An example of a learning community

The immediacy of electronic communication places a premium on timely response: The lack of it hints at inadequacy and the presence of it promotes the image of efficiency.

With this demand for instantaneous responses — from citizens or colleagues — comes the need for knowing where to obtain reliable information. "Holding" information is less important than knowing where to find it.

Electronic collaboration — creation of a learning community — is one way to enhance responsiveness.


Learning Communities

Using technology, people can develop virtual communities of individuals from diverse locations. These online communities help participants respond to issues and learn from experience. They can exist as any form of user-created content, including message forums, live chats, or postings of reviews and articles. Despite the medium, however, people contribute to the pool of knowledge and select what they need from it when they need it.

Imagine a library reference room, where frequently used resources are readily at hand. To locate a book of interest, you may need to search the card catalog database, but the librarian is always available to answer specific questions, and may also pull information from other reference materials or refer you to another person. Imagine that the learning community is all of the above.


Managing the Community

The success of an online community depends on the support and guidance of the community manager.

Most first-time community members are unfamiliar or uncomfortable in the online environment and do not have the normal cues to help them. They need the experience of someone who has "been there" to help them become experienced. Community facilitators can provide that guidance by:

* Taking an online course or joining a community.

* Getting insight from others who know what support is needed.

* Asking members why they are involved in the community.

In hosting or facilitating a learning community, also keep these guidelines in mind:

* Understand your parameters as a facilitator (know the do's and don'ts).

* Communicate the boundaries of the community's purpose (this will help to organize online areas by topic or issue).

* Clarify expectations of members and their rights for privacy and security.

* Organize online activities and provide objectives and incentives.

In regard to the last point, learning communities need to engage members to encourage information sharing and improve the forum's "stickiness." Members of the community should have a reason for being there and they should feel free to contribute. There should be some motivation, as well. This does not mean offering prizes, but some incentive should be apparent, perhaps in the form of a chat session with a field expert.


Collaboration's Benefits

An agency's involvement in "media-rich" activities signals support for collaborative endeavors. There is a benefit to this besides the advantages of sharing information: The retention rate of employees improves noticeably at sites that foster such community building.

Learning communities provide an opportunity to serve far-reaching audiences and can help support the coordination of diverse groups.

And besides linking individuals in disparate settings, electronic collaboration lowers costs and enhances responsiveness. To ensure success, however, keep your focus on the end users and their need for timely, reliable content.

Tang is a Web producer in Northern Virginia. Her e-mail address is bethtang@yahoo.com.

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