November 16, 1998
Intranet Advisor
Steven L. Telleen

What It Means To Have Virtual Communities on an Intranet


In my last column I discussed virtual communities in an e-commerce setting. As promised, this column explores virtual communities as a feature of intranets. 

As more people in an organization become adept at intranet communication, they are beginning to find each other and form communities of interest that cross organizational and geographic boundaries. Communities of interest are different than virtual workgroups, another intranet phenomenon. Here are some implications of that difference: 

  1. Communities of interest are self-subscribing, while virtual workgroups are mandated or appointed. 
  2. Communities of interest maintain history, statistics, and stories. In workgroups, these are maintained by the larger organization. 
  3. Communities of interest set their own goals and visions. In workgroups, goals and vision are set by the larger organization. 
  4. Communities of interest generate and enforce their own rules and codes. The larger organization heavily influences the creation and enforcement of rules and codes in virtual workgroups. 
  5. Communities of interest maintain their own reward systems, usually non-monetary. Virtual workgroups are rewarded by the larger organization, often with monetary implications. 
Effective virtual workgroups tend to evolve community characteristics. Unless the group becomes an organizational renegade, it takes its direction, gauges its effectiveness, and gains its rewards from the larger organization. Most groups are a hybrid--somewhere between an independent community that has become alienated from the larger organization, and a completely focused workgroup that fails or provides sterile results. 

Self-forming intranet communities can provide tangible benefits. For example, a friend in the banking industry has seen his share of acquisitions as a senior technology vice president of Internet technologies. The intranet has enabled him to facilitate information-sharing after an acquisition. 

His group assembled a community development package, which includes discussion forums and personal pages, and a four-hour training session open to any individuals who want to start a new community. While community pioneers learned how to use the applications, the training session enabled enrollees to develop the people and relationships in the new virtual community.

As companies move to a virtual-community model, understanding how to nurture communities and keep them integrated will become more important. In fact, a role that should be developed in intranet organizations is that of cross-pollinator--individuals responsible for spreading ideas across existing communities of interest, and for acting as a catalyst for the development of new ones. 

Date: 19981116
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