Daily Archives: January 31, 2013

Technology and Online Communities: Relationship for Success

Throughout my career I’ve had to constantly adjust to newer technologies and adopt new methodologies to complete an assignment in the workplace. I’ve also been required to do the opposite; learn an older piece of tech to support an existing process. This week I want to concentrate on the reliance that online communities have with technology and how newer technologies can significantly change the way people interact within the community.

Online communities are significantly impacted by the software that is supporting them. According to Preece, Maloney-Krichmar and Abras in “History and Emergence of Online Communities”, online communities can vary greatly depending on their purpose, size, duration of existence and the software environment that supports them. Originally, communities were limited to such technologies as List-servers and e-mail (originating back in the ‘70s), but with the constant innovation in technology, users now have the ability to easily communicate with potentially millions of people across the world.

This relationship between technology and online communities is mutually beneficial and enables technology to further advance through the collaboration of developers, designers and other IT professionals. One of the greatest examples in the use of online communities to further the development of software is the open source movement. Open Source software development relies heavily on volunteers that have experience with creating and testing various forms of programs. These can range from Operating Systems such as Linux to Web Browsers (Mozilla Firefox).

During his address at OSCON 2012, David Eaves described the importance of online communities to the development of open sourced software. David concentrated on the aspects of “Social Capital” and bug resolution, both of which are important to the creation of a quality software product that is free for users. Social capital is value that is generated through the online community that supports your software product by testing and reporting various bugs they find. These communities also add direct value through developing the product itself.

I found David’s address interesting because it showed how communities can be tracked and monitored to improve the continuing development of a product. He detailed a unique tool that shows how many members of the community reported bugs, added fixes, and was active on the various support forums that they host. The importance that these members have on the innovation of a product is quite astounding and can be seen not only in the open source sector, but in proprietary solutions as well.

Oddly enough, Microsoft has developed a large community of developers through their Microsoft Developer’s Network (MSDN) service and has begun to embrace open source-like methodologies with some of their own proprietary technologies. An example of this is Microsoft’s “Openness” service, which supports multiple open source technologies such as PHP, Drupal, Python and Java. The company has also migrated some of their solutions to an open source platform, such as the Entity Framework, allowing developers to see the source code and modify it as necessary in an effort for various improvements in the architecture.

Overall, I think it’s important to remember that technological innovation and online communities have a mutually beneficial relationship that will continue to exist for the foreseeable future.

Industry and Internal Innovation

Taken by Paul B. http://www.flickr.com/photos/eastbeach/8350954405/in/photostream/

Taken by Paul B. http://www.flickr.com/photos/eastbeach/8350954405/in/photostream/

It’s no surprise that online communities foster innovation in industry (and if it is you should take a few minutes and give this journal article entitled Online Communities and Open Innovation a quick read). Since the creation of the internet’s first message board, online communities have acted as a forum for exchange of thoughts where ideas created by one user were perpetuated and grown by others in remote locations. But this, of course, is old news. The story of community-oriented betterment of ideas and innovations by online user groups has been told and retold as online communities have flourished. Stackoverflow.com has aided programmers everywhere, Wikipedia has quite effectively hijacked the locks that used to be held by the gatekeepers of information, and niche-oriented professional communities are popping up left and right to lend the benefits of online collaboration.

What has yet to be fully vetted, however, is the manner in which these online communities will change the way industries and larger companies grow and innovate. According to the paper mentioned earlier, companies are attempting to piggyback onto some of these online communities to foster innovation in their own organizations. The paper also establishes that the two main themes crucial to proper management of these online communities are governance and symbolic value creation.

The issue here, is that in the examples offered, the application of these ideas is on communities that are not necessarily supposed to be governed by some despotic higher power, or create value for a specific cause other than organic innovation. Or in other words, not only is the work being designed around the technology, but the work is being designed around technology not necessarily intended for that use. On the industry level, the model of work being designed around technology as opposed to technology being designed around work is the end-all of innovation, motivation, and ultimately, success.

In order for innovation and community development to truly benefit a company, the technology must be developed around the work, and more importantly, the users completing that work.

As a quick example I’d like to reference the Pitney Bowes Employee Innovation program. In their White Paper study, Pitney Bowes identified the five characteristics of successful employee innovation as follows:

  1. Cultivate two-way conversations
  2. Tackle today’s business challenges
  3. Actively engage at all levels
  4. Foster diversity and inclusion
  5. Design to fit your culture

And after these characteristics, they leveraged them to create their innovative workforce. Seeking to lift the innovative capabilities of their employees to the next level, Pitney Bowes developed an internal social community called IdeaNet. This internal online community encouraged all employees within the company, from the C-suite right down to the entry-level assistants, to take part in idea challenges, while providing unparalleled avenues of communication between users and unfettered access to any innovative tool or informative document possible

Organic online communities should be left to be just that: organic. A company truly looking to foster its own innovation output should take a leaf of out Pitney Bowes’ book and build their technology around their work, and most importantly, their users.