Lee Romero

On Content, Collaboration and Findability

Retiring a Community and Capturing its Knowledge

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

Recently, there was a thread of discussion on the com-Prac list about the “death of a community” and a follow-up discussion about what or how CoPs should capture discussion-produced knowledge.

I found these to be very interesting and thought-provoking discussions. In this post, I will write about two aspects of these discussions – the retiring of a community and also a case study in how a community centered around a mailing list meets the challenge of knowledge capture.

Before getting into the details – I wanted to (re-)state that I recognize that a community is (much) more than a mailing list – community members interact in many ways, some online, some in “real space”. That being said, I also know that for many communities the tool of choice for group communication is a mailing list, so in this post, I will write about issues related to the use of mailing lists, though the ideas can be transferred to other means of electronic exchange. As John D. Smith notes in the second thread:

“All of the discussion about summarization so far assumes that a community almost exclusively lives on one platform. As Nancy alluded to, I think the reality is quite a bit more messy. Note the private emails between Eric and Miguel that were mentioned in this thread. We ourselves interact in LOTS of different locations.”

In other words, even if you could solve the knowledge capture challenge for one mode of discussion (mailing lists) you are still likely missing out on a lot of the learning and knowledge sharing going on in the community. Keep that in mind!

Retiring a Community, or at least a community’s mailing list

As I’ve written about before, within the context of my current employer’s community program, mailing lists, and their related archives are an important part of our community of practice initiative (and, by extension our KM program). We have not developed a formal means to retire (or “execute” in the terms used in the first thread mentioned above) a community, but we do have a formal process for retiring mailing lists. While the following is about mailing lists, I think the concepts can scale up to any community – though it might require aggregating similar insights about other channels used by the community.

Within our infrastructure, many of the existing mailing lists are associated with one (or more) communities and we provide a simple means for anyone to request a new mailing list. There is a very light review process, primarily focused on ensuring that the requested list is different enough from existing lists and also doesn’t have such a small topic space that it will likely be very under-utilized), which means that over time we can end up with a lot of mailing lists. Without some regular house-cleaning, this situation can have a very negative impact on how a user’s discovery process – hundreds and hundreds of mailing lists means a lot of confusion.

One way we grapple with this is to use the communities as a categorization of mailing lists. Instead of leaving a user with hundreds of mailing lists to wade through, we encourage them to look for a community in which they’re interested and, through that community, find associated mailing lists. This normally reduces the number of mailing lists to consider down to a small handful.

However, we still have needed a house-cleaning process, so several years ago, this is what we set up:

  • All mailing lists are reviewed on a periodic basis – usually around once every six to twelve months.
  • When reviewed, the following criteria are used to identify candidates for retirement
    • Age of the list (it must be a certain age in order to give new lists time to “get off their feet”)
    • New subscriptions to the list (if someone newly joins what is otherwise an un-utilized list, that represents at least *potential* utilization in the future – so no need to shut it off)
    • Posting activity on the list (if a list is old enough and has not had anyone newly join and has not had any activity in a specific span of time, it becomes a candidate). Note that even a single post removes the list from candidacy (we do not attempt to quantify the value of a post or anything like that).
  • Once a list of candidate mailing lists is identified, the moderators for that list are contacted and asked if the list is needed
    • If a list has no identified moderators or (more commonly) the moderators of record are no longer with the company, the entire list of members are contacted (via an email sent directly to the members, not via the mailing list itself as that introduces the “one” post that then keeps the list “alive” in the next review).
  • Regardless of who the question is asked of, the contact with the list is positioned as a proposal to retire the list and people only need to reply if they do not align with that proposal; a target date for reply is also provided (no reply by that date is taken as alignment with retiring the list).
    • Replies saying, “Go ahead and retire” do nothing except confirm the proposal.
    • However, even one reply requesting retention of the list takes the list off the list of retirement candidates – that is, everyone has the same weight to veto the retirement.
    • As for the archives of the list, we also state that the archives will be retained even if the list is retired unless a moderator states that the archives are not needed. (The archives are included in our enterprise search, so they remain as a potential knowledge source even if the list does not have continued value in supporting on-going discussions.)
  • Assuming a list is not removed from the candidate list (i.e., it can be retired), the remaining process is simply to remove it from the list server – I won’t bore you with the details of that here.

In our environment, doing this once a year typically reduces the count of lists by about 10% – though the count of lists has remained remarkably stable over time, which would say that we then have that same kind of growth over the next year. On the other hand, if we did not proactively review and retire lists like this, we would be seeing an ever-growing list of mailing lists, making it harder for everyone to find the lists that are engendering valuable discussions.

Knowledge Capture

Or… How to lift knowledge out of the on-going discussion of a community into a better form of reusability.

If a community uses a tool like a mailing list to engender discussion and knowledge sharing – how does a community capture “nuggets” of knowledge from the discussion into a more easily digestible form? Does the community need to (perhaps not given a sophisticated enough means to find information in the archives)?

I have no magic solution to this problem but I did find another comment to be very illustrative of one aspect of the original discussion – who “owns” the archives of a community’s discussion and what is the value of those archives? Even in their raw form, why do those archives have value? As Nancy White notes:

“I suspect that only a small percentage of the members (over time) would actually use the archives. But because they hold the words of members, there may be both individual and collective sense of ownership that have little to do with “utility.”"

The rest of this post will be a brief description of a knowledge capture process I’m very familiar with – though I’m not sure if it will transfer well into other domains. For this description, I’m going completely outside of the enterprise and to a community of which I’m a member that revolves around a table-top fantasy war game named Warhammer.

A bit of background: Warhammer is a rather complex game, with a rulebook that weighs in at several hundred pages and about a dozen additional books that provides details on the various types of armies players can use. All told, probably something like 1,000 pages describing the rules and background of the game. Given the complexity of the game, it is very common that during any given game, the players will run into situations not covered well by the rules – these are usually areas involving interactions of special rules for the armies playing. In the many online forums / mailing lists that exist, one of the most frequent types of discussions revolves around these situations and how to interpret the rules. Many of the same questions come up repeatedly – obvious fodder for an FAQ.

(As an aside, given that Warhammer is published and sold by a company – Games Workshop – one could that they should publish all of the relevant FAQs. They do publish FAQs and errata but they do so at a sporadic pace at best and do not address many of the frequently asked questions.)

One particular Warhammer-related community of which I’m a member – the Direwolf (DW) community – has established a pretty well defined means to gather these FAQs and publish them back to the Warhammer community at large. A brief overview of the process:

  • A subset of the community is elected by the community each year to act as the FAQ council. This group normally includes one person responsible for questions related to the main rule book, one for each specific army and one person who’s responsible for maintaining the FAQ documents themselves (so all totaled, about 15 people).  [As another aside, I happen to be a member of this FAQ council currently, which is how I'm familiar with the process it uses.]
  • Each member of the group is responsible for monitoring discussions within the community’s mailing list related to their specific area of focus and bringing those questions to the FAQ council for consideration when they are believed to be “frequently asked” enough to warrant inclusion.
    • In addition, the council actively solicits questions specific to individual armies when a new book comes out for an army – this solicitation includes both members of the DW community and also a few other highly populated Warhammer-related communities.
  • Once a question (or set of questions) is identified for the FAQ council, the group discusses (in a mailing list available just to FAQ council members) potential answers and comes to a consensus (or at least a majority) on the answer.
    • Most commonly, the group will agree on an interpretation but occasionally, explicit polling is done to ensure at least a majority of the group agrees with an interpretation.
  • The FAQ documentation is then updated to include the relevant questions and answers and then are published on the internet and made available to anyone who plays the game.

Netting it out: A community-selected subset of the community monitors the community for questions in their area of expertise, vettes an answer with the rest of the FAQ council, and then the FAQ documentation is updated as appropriate.

This is pretty straightforward, but the value of this effort is reflected in the fact that the game publisher now very commonly uses input from the Direwolf FAQ council in considering their own responses to FAQs and also in the fact that many players from around the world use the Direwolf FAQ to ensure a consistent interpretation of those “fuzzy” areas of the game. A true value add for the Warhammer community at large.

That being said, this process does take quite a bit of energy and commitment, especially on the part of the “keeper” of the documentation, to keep things up to date. In this case, I believe that the value-add for members of the council is knowing that they are contributing to the Warhammer community at large and also knowing that they are helping themselves in their own engagement of playing the game.

How does this translate into a community of practice within an enterprise?

  • It’s possible that an exact parallel of the above could work in many communities.
  • Even if the position isn’t “elected”, some type of rotating responsibility among community members to monitor and gather FAQs (or other knowledge artifacts) could be very valuable for both the community and the member(s) who perform the job.
    • Within an enterprise that seems like an approach that will have longer legs than having a community manager (someone who helps facilitate the community but who might otherwise not have a strong vested interest in the domain of the community) responsible for this.
  • Ensuring that community members do perceive value in their involvement in the process is going to be a key component – What’s in it for them? The answer could be any number of things
    • Professional development opportunities (learning a lot more about areas in which they don’t normally work)
    • Visibility to other members of the community / career growth opportunities
    • Helping themselves be more successful in their own job (they are ensuring there is a source of gathered knowledge to be used)