Build a meeting of the minds online

The myriad communities of practice sprouting across the federal government cover a dizzying

array of topics, from ecology to e-learning.

The concept behind such communities is to unite agency personnel online to focus on a specific objective or problem. That could mean discussing invasive plant trends, vetting global trade policy or comparing class notes. The possibilities are endless.

But community content isn't the only source of diversity. Indeed, the technical approaches to bringing communities to life are nearly as varied. Formal community of practice tools, Web portal software and collaboration products are among the alternatives. And while some agencies have crafted homespun solutions to run their communities, government and industry executives suggest a different path. Their advice: Don't start from scratch.

"You really should focus on [commercial off-the-shelf] products and customize those to the localized needs of the community," said Mark Youman, a principal and knowledge management specialist at integrator American Management Systems Inc. "There are plenty of tools in the

marketplace that can focus on this area."

Software tools can provide considerable functionality from the outset, letting organizations launch communities with a minimum of fuss. Those customers seeking custom touches, however, can tweak a portal's presentation layer or integrate desired services or features.

The price tag for bringing a community online depends on a number of factors, including the deployment approach, software licensing model and level of customization. Costs vary, but organizations can expect to spend about $50 per user, software vendors say.

From Nature to Nurture

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) decided to minimize customization costs when it deployed community-of-practice technology for its National Biological Information Infrastructure. NBII (www.nbii.gov) is a clearinghouse for biological information generated in the United States. The collaborative program involves federal agencies, nonprofit organizations and universities.

NBII's communities solution is built on Plumtree Software Inc.'s Corporate Portal software and Collaboration Server. Mike Frame, director of research and technology at NBII, said the project mostly has been relying on Plumtree's out-of-the-box capabilities. Frame said he doesn't have programmers to commit to a heavy customization effort. "We try to use as much [commercial off-the-shelf software] as we can," Frame said.

USGS is building a community for an interagency invasive species council based in Hawaii. Other communities have been established to discuss database interoperability and other standards questions related to the development of NBII.

The computing power behind those portal communities resides in USGS' Denver office, which operates five servers that primarily support NBII. In addition, a dozen employees from USGS and other participating agencies and universities serve as "community managers," cultivating the science-based communities.

They have the authority to add new users and identify new documents for inclusion. The community managers are distributed from Texas to Hawaii and access the NBII servers via the Web.

The Department of Health and Human Services took a different route to online communities. The agency wanted to add a community-of-practice capability to DL\net, the department's distributed learning system (learning.hhs.gov). HHS didn't adopt a commercial product, but it didn't reinvent the wheel either.

HHS officials decided to work with Burke Consortium Inc., an integrator that had included community-of-practice features in Web site and intranet projects for customers such as the Navy and the Transportation Department.

HHS officials asked the company to extract the communities-of-practice functionality from its previous work, said Kerry Joels, project manager in the Office of Human Resources at HHS. The department wanted to make learning communities available to reinforce its online courses.

"If this is a true learning space, there needs to be a place to collaborate during the learning," Joels said.

The software might be labeled "custom" in the sense that it was specifically created to support communities of practice. The code base HHS adopted required few modifications to meet its needs. Essentially, Burke Consortium pulled out the community code from a DOT intranet and rebranded it for DL\net.

Burke Consortium's software takes advantage of a number of e-business building blocks. Dave Whitney, a vice president at Burke Consortium, said the company's community-of-practice software is optimized for Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Information Server and uses the SQL Server database.

"We use Active Server Pages, and we also develop in Microsoft .Net," Whitney said. Active Server Page is Microsoft's server-side scripting environment, and .Net is a software integration technology based on Extensible Markup Language.

Key Capabilities

Agencies may take different deployment approaches, but the community features they pursue follow a similar pattern. Community builders list threaded discussions, document management and calendar sharing among the core functions.

Threaded discussions let users discuss topics of mutual interest and, in government circles, offer a forum to hash over policy. Document management capabilities allow community administrators to upload relevant documents — a policy brief or a scientific white paper, for example. A community's document management tool may also include more advanced features such as version control.

USGS' Frame said that Plumtree's Web portal offers rudimentary document management and discussion groups. The addition of Collaboration Server, however, provides NBII communities with more extensive document management and multiple discussion threads, he said.

The ability to share ideas, documents and a calendar may be enough for some communities, but others are pushing into project collaboration.

The State Department, for example, employs eRoom Technology Inc.'s collaboration product to help craft economic policy for the world's major industrialized democracies. State uses eRoom to automate the policy-making process, from brainstorming to the final version.

E-mail integration is another feature that propels a community beyond the basics. Through an e-mail link, users can receive an alert when a new issue gets posted on a discussion thread. This approach frees users from having to constantly monitor a thread for updates.

Youman of AMS added that a daily e-mail newsletter could be distributed to "show what is new in the community and allow people to keep tabs without checking Web sites." He said that some commercial off-the-shelf products include an e-mail "push" feature. In other cases, one may have to write to an "agent" to receive the e-mail linkage.

Communities can also employ personal portal pages to get the word out. Bob Carter, public-sector director at Plumtree, said a "MyPage" could be created to alert users to new information. Users belonging to multiple communities can consult their personalized pages for updates, rather than trolling through each community's pages.

Instant text messaging also can play a role in online communities.

The Federal Aviation Administration's Atlanta office has created a community using Lotus Development Corp.'s Sametime product for chat, online meetings and instant messaging. The FAA also uses Lotus' QuickPlace, which provides a secure Web work space for discussions and document sharing.

The FAA's goal is to provide an immediate awareness of who is available to respond to an emergency, such as a hurricane, and build ad hoc teams quickly, said Alan Stensland, regional program manager for environment and safety with the FAA's operations branch.

Other important community features fall into the administration category. Burke Consortium's Whitney said the ability to create new groups or subgroups within a community is an important feature. A community of 50 people focused on a given subject may want to break into smaller groups to pursue a specific issue or task, he said.

Lee Canterbury, e-business and knowledge management program manager at Burke Consortium, said a log-in feature that recognizes the user is also critical. That's because users generally have different roles within a community: Some may be observers limited to viewing information, while others may have the ability to add new members or post new information.

"You want to have a log-in so you can identify who the person is and what role they play in the community," Whitney said.

Getting Started

The task of taking a community online should begin with an assessment of community needs: Who are the users? What do they need to know? Where will technology improve the business process? The objective is to make the automated tools fit the community, rather than the other way around, experts say. "There's a big difference between a toolset and a toolset that has been created and thought through for your community," Youman said.

The next phase involves deploying the technology. Community functions, as noted, are embedded in a variety of software offerings. Buyers will find that software pricing models vary as well.

Software products used in communities of practice are often licensed on a per-user basis; a price tag of about $50 per user is fairly typical. Other licensing programs exist, however.

Mike Loria, director of the advanced collaboration group for IBM Corp.'s Lotus software, said his company lets customers pay by the community rather than by the number of people accessing communities. One large customer uses QuickPlace to launch communities of practice and has created thousands of QuickPlaces to support research and development projects. For such customers, paying by the community may prove easier and more cost-

effective than tracking the number of users.

Burke Consortium offers still another variation. The company provides its source code and documentation free of charge. Customers pay for whatever consulting, customization and maintenance services they may need. HHS spent about $25,000 on its communities-of-practice software, Joels said. Software built from scratch might have cost 10 times as much.

Finally, a communities project shouldn't end once the software is installed. Youman advocates ongoing performance measurement. That means gathering statistics on Web site traffic and polling users on the value of provided information. Youman said organizations should also keep tabs on whether a community is meeting its business objective, whether the goal is cost reduction or process

improvement.

As good as a community may be, there's always room for improvement.

Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

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Features of an online community of practice

Core features

* Threaded discussions

* Document management

* Calendar sharing

* Log-in/access control

Additional features

* E-mail integration

* Project collaboration

* Personalization (such as the ability to register and pick topics for automated notifications)

* Application program interface kit

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