I used to work for a company that took pride in encouraging open dialogue. They had an excellent intranet, and a few years ago they wanted to implement forums to promote productive conversation.
After 3 major revisions to the forums over a 4 year period, usage was still sporadic at best. The technology worked, the culture was right, and the company was big enough (over 500 employees). What was wrong?
When you have a small base of users (say, under 10,000), everything has to be perfect to create effective discussion forums. Here are 6 guidelines:
1. ATTACH A FORUM TO EVERY PAGE.
Instead of just providing a centralized location for forums, allow discussions to emerge on any and every intranet page. It’s impossible to know what will spark a conversation.
2. PROVIDE AN AGGREGATED, PRIORITIZED VIEW OF DISCUSSIONS.
This page should list every active discussion on the intranet, showing:
- Title of page where discussion is happening
- Owner of page
- Number of posts to the discussion
- Date & time of most recent comment (best expressed in relative terms, i.e. 2 hours ago)
Sort by date, placing at the top the discussion with the most recent post.
3. INTEGRATE FORUMS WITH THE COMPANY DIRECTORY.
Forums shouldn’t require registration. The intranet should be able to personally identify each user (usually via Windows integrated authentication).
Link the name of each commenter to his or her employee profile in the intranet directory.
4. STRIP THE INTERFACE TO THE BASICS.
On the actual page containing the discussion, all you need for each comment is:
- name of commenter (linked to his/her intranet profile)
- date & time comment was made (best expressed in relative terms, i.e. 2 hours ago)
- the comment itself
- No multi-level threads
- No comment-level subject (a single subject at the top of the page is sufficient)
Sort comments with the oldest at the top, so the discussion is easily read.
5. SIGNAL PARTICIPANTS WHEN A POST IS MADE.
This is perhaps the most important step to effective discussion forums.
As soon as a post is made, send an email to the page owner and to everyone who has participated in the discussion so far. (If your user base is technically savvy, you can provide an RSS feed instead.) This keeps the discussion moving and keeps all participants involved. Otherwise, days can elapse between comments, and the conversation dies out.
6. ENGAGE YOUR ORGANIZATION’S THOUGHT LEADERS.
If you can get the leaders at your company to use the forums to share opinions or ask thought-provoking questions, others will follow.
It takes all 6 steps to create effective discussions on your company’s intranet. Has your company made a success of forums? Do you have any other ideas on how to make them work? If so, I’d like to hear about it. Post a comment below.