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Seven steps to building electronic communities

By Philippa Gamse and Terry Grunwald
Posted Thursday, August 12, 2004

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?
where are the gaps in what is accomplished?
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:
training opportunities
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:
group e-mail;
ability to send disk files & faxes;
conferencing with message threading; private discussion areas; keyword search; etc.
Costs:
proprietary software;
one time and monthly subscription;
online charges (peak / off-peak);
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, a nd 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

b]A. Why train?[/b]
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:
local colleges
computer vendors
computer user groups
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 ne(groupaddresses)
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


About the author
**********************
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/)