Designing discussions

This week I've been working on a project that is going to involve use of SharePoint as a 'home room' for team members. At least that is the theory.

SharePoint's website promises that 'Microsoft SharePoint 2010 makes it easier for people to work together. Using SharePoint 2010, your people can set up Web sites to share information with others, manage documents from start to finish, and publish reports to help everyone make better decisions.'

I'm not usually defeatist but the very mention of SharePoint and I immediately thought oh no not another platform for losing stuff on, practicing endless misfiling protocols, confusing organizational newcomers, and ensuring hours of wasted time and frustration searching for something that people know is on there 'somewhere'.

I know I've used earlier versions of SharePoint in various jobs in my recent history but they always seem to have the same trajectory – it resembles the normal change curve that everyone is familiar with, but just in case you're not it runs like this.

Downward slope: Anxiety: Can I cope?
First upward slope: Happiness: At last something is going to change
Then the slope down again towards
Fear: What impact is this going to have on me
Threat: This is bigger than I thought
Denial: Change? What change?
Disillusionment: This isn't for me
And at the bottom of the slope Depression: I give up

At this point we see that the change curve starts to turn upwards towards acceptance and finally moving forward to 'this can work and be good'.

Unfortunately, as far as my experience of SharePoint and its look alikes go the curve never goes up. People stop at disillusionment or depression or worse veer off on a sideways tack towards hostility.

So what does work? I just asked my niece (aged 25ish) if she used SharePoint at work and she says they are about to introduce it but currently the system is i-share but despite the name nobody does, even though she and her team are all Millennials and I thought they would embrace the technology. I asked her why they didn't. So the response came that:

a) It needs someone to put everyone 's data in the same protocols for effective storage and 'harvesting'
b) People have their own methods of filing and retrieving their information and there is no incentive to do anything differently
c) They are too busy on other things to change the way they do things even if there was an incentive to do it
d) The organization and management of 'sharing' isn't a job role for anyone so no-one does it
e) It's too vague in its value proposition to make it seem better than the way information is currently worked with.

So I started to think about the project I'm working on where we'll be using (or intending to use) SharePoint and specifically, in my role, the Discussion Board feature. The only place where I've had success in using discussion boards in on Moodle and Blackboard but in both those cases I was teaching an on-line university program. Here's how I operated it.

a) At the start of the program I told students that I would be posting an article each week on the discussion board.
b) Each week two students had to initiate a discussion on the article by commenting on it.
c) Before the first article was posted we listed for the whole semester the names of the two students who would initiate the discussion. They could choose which week number they would comment but did not know what article would be posted.
d) Either they could jointly comment or they could individually comment. The comment had to be substantive – a minimum of 500 words.
e) Every other student in the class had to participate substantively (minimum 800 words) in the discussion before the end of the week by commenting on one of the lead students articles and additionally developing points made by other learners.
f) Students had to participate 100% or lose 15% of their overall grade.
g) I commented on each student's comments (privately to that student)
h) At the end of the week I summarized the full week's discussion and posted this with the learning points.

So this method had a clean sheet to start, a defined start and end date, a clear task and goals, assigned accountabilities, a penalty for non-participation, feedback from peers and teacher, teacher participation, and a learning outcome.

Now I'm wondering if there would be any organizational benefit in trying to use this kind of structured and moderated approach with a SharePoint discussion board. Experience tells me that just opening a discussion board and expecting people to 'discuss' or a SharePoint site and expecting people to 'share' is simply not going to work. But I think it could if there were good reason to have the discussion or share information in the first place.

I looked around for a Best Practices Guide but all I found was SharePoint Best Practices guide which suggests that "Doing a few minutes of planning prior to creating a new site" will get you where you want to be. In the few minutes (my incredulous italics) we are asked to find answers to the following:

  • What is the purpose of the site?
  • What are your business goals?
  • Is there already an existing site that fulfills these goals?
  • Do I need an entire site? Or would a new page or item in an existing site be better?
  • Who needs access to the site? Team members, everyone in the department, external partners/vendors? What is the expected lifespan of site? 6 month project, until the next reorg, indefinite?
  • Does the site need to be searchable?
  • Should information within the site be able to be tagged and shared with others?
  • What kind of navigation is needed within the site? Complex subsite and library structure? Or fairly shallow, simple Information Architecture?
  • Will the site be for publishing and broad communications or for small group collaboration?
  • What kind of content will be stored within the site? Documents, project tracking, rich media, lists and spreadsheets?

It is precisely a few minutes of planning that will get the use of the platform exactly nowhere. So here is a suggestion on having a better chance of getting your discussion group or SharePoint site actually bringing some business benefits.

Spend a decent amount of time with people who are supposed to use the site and the people instructing people to use the site making sure that :

  • The reasons for launching the discussion board are clearly defined.
  • The positive impact to the business of its use is clear
  • Leaders of are supportive of and committed to the discussion board and participate in the discussions
  • The priority of the discussion board with respect to other work processes is clear.
  • The business case for using the discussion board creates a sense of urgency or priority for everyone expected to contribute
  • Everyone is 'on the same page' with the concepts and protocols of using the discussion board.
  • There are clear expectations regarding roles, responsibilities, and scope for discussion board use with associated rewards and penalties that are actioned
  • There is obvious evidence of an overall motivation and drive to make the discussion board work and measurement and tracking of the (previously agreed) success factors.

If those elements are not articulated and communicable don't even start down the path of putting up a discussion board or SharePoint site.

That said – I'd be happy to hear about collaboration sites and discussion boards that are vibrant, productive, and sustained. Any best practice tips on getting to this would be very welcome.