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In 1990, an anthropologist named Julian Orr published results from his study of Xerox’s technical representatives who serviced Xerox copiers at customer sites. Although the representatives were supposed to work alone using troubleshooting documentation, Orr found that to solve copier problems the representatives relied a lot on each other’s working knowledge, which went beyond the documentation provided by Xerox . Through informal chats and discussions they exchanged insights and shared knowledge gained through experience.

Orr’s findings resulted in two major actions: first, the representatives were given two way radios so that they could talk to each other from their respective customer sites, and second, a project to create a database of information on copier problems was initiated. The idea behind this project, labelled Eureka, was to make it easier for the representatives to share their knowledge beyond their own circle, and this was done by allowing the representatives to enter their insights directly into the system, which could then be accessed by other representatives from different locations. In effect, it aimed at creating a virtual community of users, something very similar to what we have on our forums here on SDN.

I have known about the SDN forums for over an year, but I began to involve myself closely in a forum only since the SAP NetWeaver Development Infrastructure (NWDI) went live a few months back. These early months have shown a fair amount of activity amongst community members in this forum. The nature of questions have been mixed, ranging from consulting questions on setting up landscapes to specific support-related queries on technical problems faced. As I watch the community grow and see the volume of knowledge in the forum increase, I find myself asking a simple yet important question: how can we structure and present all this knowledge in a way that nourishes the community (both current and future ones) and enhances their collective knowhow?

One way to approach this problem is to make the forums easier to search and find information. The current forum search is good, and can be enhanced by supporting tags (labels) on topics (and even on specific answers within the thread of a topic). However, search and other methods of structuring information are passive ways to disseminate information – their effectiveness (towards enhancing the collective knowledge of a community) depends on the user’s initiative to come forward looking for information, which typically happens only when users are trying to solve a problem. Are there other – active – ways to push this information to the users ?

The first thing that comes to mind is something like a monthly forum summary, which consolidates and categorizes topics that were raised during the last month and offers links to the individual threads. To a community member, such a summary would offer a quick overview of what’s been happening in the forum, and a collection of such summaries can also be used later to search for threads in specific areas. We could also think of allowing users to subscribe to such summaries, thus making the leap from a “passive” link on the web to a set of “active” mails that reach the user’s inbox.

As an experiment, I’ve created a summary (enclosed below) of the last month’s main topics in the JDI forum – please offer your feedback on how useful it is to get a such a summary on a monthly basis. (I shall be posting a link to this post on the forum as well).

—————- JDI Forum summary: August 6th to Sept 6th 2005 ————————————————–

Administration

Track Related

Installation / Deployment

Authorization

Maintenance

General

Development

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2 Comments

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  1. Mark Finnern
    Hi Manohar,

    How long did it take you to get the list together? What were your criteria for including a post into?

    We are seriously thinking about how is the best way to extract the best from the forums.

    Wiki? Top Posts Per Forum? Can it be automated?

    We will have discussions at the SDN BOF sessions at TechEd. http://wiki.sdn.sap.com

    Please join us there, Mark. 

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    1. Manohar Sreekanth Post author
      Hi Mark,

      It took me a few hours to compile this list (but I was already familiar with most of the threads).

      Regarding the criteria, for a given date-range I picked up those threads which I felt contained useful information regarding (1) problem solving (2) Explanation of Concepts (3) Best practices (4) Currently known limitations/issues. I did not look only for “solved” threads – some of the ones listed are still open, yet contain valuable troubleshooting information.

      Gathering such a collection clearly demands familiarity in the domain of the specific forum, but what can help is a way to flag certain threads as “relevant for summary” and have a single-click generation of a html page containing a list of these hyperlinked topics. It would then be much easier for moderators (for instance) to start with such a generated list and classify it suitably.

      Regards,
      Manohar

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