The Evolution of Knowledge Communities and Their Impact on Self-Service

by Lawrence Eng

Knowledge has exploded, and by that I mean, knowledge is everywhere. Knowledge is accessible. Knowledge has been democratized, crowdsourced, repurposed, remixed, and regurgitated. Where knowledge was once scarce, it is now abundant. Where knowledge was once controlled, it is now free. It’s taken on a life of its own. If you’ll excuse the idiom, the knowledge genie has left the bottle.

For those of you with far more experience and credentials in knowledge management than I can claim, what I wrote above might sound nonsensical, or perhaps overblown. I suspect, however, that its approximation of the truth is at least a little bit unsettling. Considering how information technology has evolved—with the ever-increasing importance of social media, mobile, and the cloud—there’s simply no denying that things are changing, especially our relationship to what we call knowledge.

For those of us in this industry, the stakes are particularly high because we understand and use knowledge in the context of support. Knowledge is what allows us to efficiently and effectively solve and prevent our customers’ problems—whether our customers are internal users at our organizations, or external consumers of our products and services. As such, one might naturally feel inclined to rail against or be wary of anything (whether substantive or hype) that could interfere with the official, vetted, and more-or-less sacrosanct knowledge we produce, collect, and curate that legitimately helps people. In other words, we instinctively sense that the presumed abundance of “knowledge” available online and via other unsanctioned channels might do more harm than good, offering far more noise than signal.

If such concerns ring true to you, I wholly sympathize. This article will offer a complementary perspective in hopes of easing those concerns, explaining how the explosion of knowledge online is not something to fear or bemoan, but something we can leverage with great effectiveness to revolutionize our users’ self-service experience. In particular, we will explore why and how to do that within the context of online knowledge communities, utilizing the principles of gamification and reputation to encourage the participation of the highest caliber subject matter experts and maximize the quality of knowledge we provide.

Online Communities and Social Networks

To understand the full context of the perspective I hope to share, you’ll need to know at least a little bit about me. As alluded to above, I don’t have an official knowledge management background. I’m relatively new to the world of service management, and “knowledge management” was not a phrase we used in the academic and professional environments I come from. Instead, my concept of knowledge comes from my background in science and technology studies (STS), as well as first-hand experience as a research scientist working in university biology labs. My graduate studies in STS revolved around how online fan communities engaged with media and pop culture, and how they functioned as subcultural knowledge networks. So instead of applying the principles of knowledge management to community, I’m coming from the other direction—applying what I know about informal knowledge communities to address the requirements of knowledge management in professional settings.

Those who are familiar with online communities will quickly recognize the similarities between knowledge sharing within organizations and the type of sharing that occurs within the informal communities of practice that have existed online since the early days of the Internet and its spiritual predecessors (BBSes and services like Compuserve and Prodigy). As soon as strangers could congregate online, even before the birth of the World Wide Web, people with similar interests—no longer constrained by geographic isolation—could share and produce knowledge around their chosen obsessions, whether it was particle physics or Pokémon.

Even those who haven’t experienced such communities might have some experience with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the other online sites/services we collectively refer to as social networks. There’s an important distinction to be made, however, between social networks and online communities. While social networks are focused on connecting online with people you already know (e.g., friends and family), online communities are primarily about interacting with people you don’t already know, but with whom you share common interests. The social glue that holds social network participants together is mutual obligation based on family or other relatively close personal ties. Online communities, on the other hand, are held together by shared knowledge and practices around that knowledge, and the participants have fairly impersonal and loose ties to each other.

While the rise of social networks has led many to anticipate and observe a revolution in the way we engage with our customers, it would be a mistake to presume that the form and function of social networks provides a comprehensive template for how social support can and should work. While knee-jerk corporate reactions against social network usage in the workplace might be counterproductive, there is simply no guarantee that opening the social floodgates will serve the knowledge needs of our organizations. After all, social networks are not typically designed with knowledge at the forefront. That’s where online communities re-enter the story, and that’s where they have a significant advantage.

Community Knowledge Management

In my estimation, online communities—not social networks—represent the future of social support. This is because online communities have always sought to address two questions that social networks aren’t typically concerned with: 

  1. What is the best content? 
  2. How should that content be organized, retained, presented, and rewarded?

Communities designed to address those questions well can be powerful sites of social support, or what some have called “social IT,” which may also be conceptualized as communal or peer-to-peer self-service (as opposed to traditional IT self-service where a lone individual interacts with a service catalog that utilizes automated no-touch delivery). Online communities are ideally spaces that enable people to help each other, which results in better solutions and allows for the growth of knowledge. Social support, in that context, might be rephrased as community knowledge management.

Community knowledge management is a useful phrase because it can be read and understood in two different ways. In one sense, it’s about managing community knowledge—making sense of and properly dealing with knowledge produced by members of a community. In another sense, it’s about knowledge management undertaken by the community itself. In addition to community members creating knowledge, they can actively help to organize and curate it. This type of engaged and self-sufficient community is every community manager’s dream, because it means that the community is fully invested and you won’t need an army of paid moderators to keep the community healthy.

Room to Innovate

Designing communities to work well is no trivial task, and while the basics of online communities were worked out a long time ago, there’s still a long way to go. Indeed, online communities have been around a lot longer than social networks (partly due to the simple fact that social networks required a relatively huge critical mass of people to have Internet access so that any average person would have a sufficient number of friends and family members to connect with online). That said, I’d argue that social networks—with Facebook leading the way— have evolved and innovated more in the last five years than online communities have in the last fifteen. There are some dedicated community providers/platforms out there (e.g., Jive, Lithium, Get Satisfaction, Stack Exchange Network) that are starting to make their presence known, focusing on innovative business models as much as or more than cutting-edge product features. In terms of widespread adoption, however, community experiences across the web have remained fairly similar to each other; they look pretty much like what they did in the 1990s, with your standard discussion forum hierarchy, threaded conversations, profiles, avatars, and possibly some rudimentary points system or the occasional leaderboard.

The time is ripe for innovation in the domain of online community. Now that social networking has made online peer-to-peer interaction comfortable for the masses (at least for the purposes of sharing vacation photos, cat videos, memes, status updates, and 140-character ironic quips), we’re ready to bring back the concept of using the Internet for some good old-fashioned knowledge work.

Online community designers have always had to address issues of scalability. In particular, how do we create highly usable communities where there’s both a lot of content and a lot of people? A simple mailing list works well when there are only a handful of users contributing a small amount of content, but what do you do when there are hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of participants in your community? How do you make the tremendous flow of information easy to digest, easy to browse, and easy to search? How do you make sure the information is high quality, that the best knowledge is highlighted, and that the most knowledgeable people are encouraged to participate and empowered to keep quality standards in the community high? To answer these questions, we must innovate in at least two areas: organizing knowledge and promoting quality in the communities we design.

How to organize large volumes of user-generated content will be discussed elsewhere and probably with the help of knowledge architects far more capable than myself. Instead, the remainder of this article will focus on the issue of quality.

Towards a Meritocratic Knowledge Economy

The Internet has long had a strange relationship with the concept of quality. An egalitarian spirit of openness and inclusion runs through the history of the web, and the democratic ideal of everyone having an equal voice online has been one of the cornerstones of the information revolution. Anyone can upload a YouTube video that rivals traditional media producers, and anyone can edit Wikipedia to make an immediate impact on society’s knowledge of any given subject. While people typically laud the upsides of these new capabilities, some of us are also compelled to ask: How do we know what is actually good? How do we know what is correct? How do we know who to trust?

This is where the concepts of gamification, reputation, and influence come in. Gamification, or the use of game principles in nongame settings, is not just a Gen Y or Millennial plot to turn work into play. Gamification is less about introducing game elements into our work to make that work more fun, and more about making our work more meaningful and making things count. Adding reward schemas to mandatory and routine work tasks might result in some productivity gains, but it’s just a few short steps away from micromanagement and encouraging toxic competition between coworkers. In the context of community, however, where participants voluntarily contribute and help others, gamification becomes a powerful tool to encourage, recognize, reward, and empower the best people for what they naturally want to do and are good at, so that it actually counts for them instead of just being a distraction from their official responsibilities.

In well-designed reputation systems where subject matter experts are given greater content curation abilities than those who haven’t established their expertise, regular community members (including noncontributors) can feel confident about which content is truly valuable and who the knowledgeable experts really are. As community owners, we benefit because we’ve created an environment where content creators are motivated, content consumers are satisfied, and moderation responsibility is distributed among community members who have earned the privilege to be moderators by proving their knowledge and trustworthiness.

As online knowledge communities continue to play a bigger role in how we engage with our customers and how they engage with each other, we have a tremendous opportunity to build these systems together for the common good.


Lawrence Eng is a social scientist specializing in user research, online communities, and otaku studies. He received his PhD in science and technology studies from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2006 and earned degrees in Biology from Cornell University and the University of California – Davis. Based in San Diego, Lawrence is currently the online community program manager for ServiceNow.

Tag(s): KM, knowledge management, social media, social IT, crowdsourcing


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