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SDN and BPX: The evolution from information site to collaborative platform

Recently, I’ve had less time to write my SDN blogs or work on SDN/BPX Wiki than I really would like.  That doesn’t mean that I stopped using SDN and BPX, I still accessed the sites on a daily basis. But I stopped being an active contributor and started just being an information consumer.  This started a thought process when I began to consider how and why I use the SDN/BPX sites. I also started to consider what potential still lies in two communities and ways to try and achieve this potential.  

When I use SDN/BPX as an information consumer, I usually have a technical problem that I have trying to solve. I have no real choice but to use the site (which says a lot regarding the informational value that the two sites provide). When I am creating SDN/BPX content, then usually it is a more optional activity. I do it when I have time and have the creative juices to produce something new.  Depending on my current workload, I usually jump from one role to the next.

Inasmuch as the development of these two communities reflects typical WEB 2.0 technologies (such as blogs, etc.), I am more interested to describe how SDN/BPX can move beyond these trends and provide even more value to community members – here I purposefully used the word “members” instead of the word “users”. 

A Note: I recently conducted an interview with Senior Editor Talila Baron where I talked about my views on the two communities.  I consider this blog an extension of that interview.

If you look at the history of the two communities, you see that initially SDN started as just another avenue for SAP to provide information for individuals – either users of its technology and those just interested in this technology.  You had forums where you could post questions and – hopefully – get answers.  Initially, these answers were primarily technology-oriented and usually answered by SAP employees.  As time progressed, however, it became apparent that more answers / forum comments were coming individuals who were not SAP employees.

The emergence of SDN blogs enabled users to express themselves with topics of their own choosing. Initial blog topics were primarily technical in nature – today, blog topics are more varied.  I think this tendency is also reflected in the emergence of the BPX community which by nature is less technical in nature. It is also curious to see how the two communities interact, because it is through this interaction that the two sites are evolving into something more than just a simple combination of their users / topics.  This interaction provides one of the most important benefits of the two communities: the interaction of users who otherwise would – in all likelihood – have had little or no contact with each other. This is seen in the continuously increasing intermingling of the BPX and SDN communities.

The question is, of course, how to promote this interaction and increase its efficiency.  Currently in the two communities, there are limited ways to interact – you can communicate via a forum, you can respond to someone’s blog or you can both work on a WIKI entry.  These interactions are all rather short-lived.  Of course, there might be sort of conversation that occurs via blog responses but that is usually limited to the blog topic.  As to be expected, there may be personal contacts via email (I’ve had a number of these interactions based on my blogs) but these are also rather limited.

The BPX Community Pilot  represents one example of another art of interaction. Here the idea is based on the fact that community members should join together to work an Enterprise SOA project.  This construction is artificial inasmuch as there is no actual project being created with concrete deadlines and budgetary concerns. Still, this represents a new sort of collaboration that is long-lived inasmuch as pilot members can contribute to different parts of a pilot that has the typical lifecycle associated with IT projects. They can assume different roles in an imaginary project that can (and should) still have both feet in the concerns / requirements of the real world.  The goals of the pilot are to beyond collaboration towards cooperative decision-making where those participating work together to make decisions and solve problems.  This necessity is based on the fact that pilots contain phases (just like any IT project) that necessitate choices (which process design methodology are we going to use, etc.). For an interesting comparison of the two types of interaction, see this interesting blog.

The Pilot is also interesting inasmuch as it will include non-textual collaboration.  If you look at the current collaboration that is available in the two communities, it is purely textual – blog entries, forum responses, etc.  The Gliffy WIKI Plug-in  – which will hopefully be available soon – is sort of like VISIO.  This will allow users to create in a new fashion.  The Pilot will provide an excellent context – allowing users to create org charts, process diagrams, system landscapes, etc. The ability to use such drawings in the WIKI is not unique – you can upload pictures in the common image formats.  The fun stuff is the ability for other users to change these pictures. This is a new sort of collaboration.  As we all know, technical documentation – whatever form – is out of necessity full of such drawings. Thus, the Gliffy plug-in is quite important. The Pilot provides an excellent chance for users to test this technology. Furthermore, the Pilot provides community members the chance to create the same sort of drawings that they need on a daily basis.  Of course, Gliffy is not Visio – however, it elevates collaboration to a new level.  If successful, I imagine its usage in other contexts as well.  As stated above, the Pilot is artificial.  What would happen, for example, if process-related IT projects in the real world could use such technology?  Could the oft troublesome collaboration between project members be improved / streamlined?

The Pilot is not only the only possibility of improving this collaboration between members. Here are few other ideas:

  • A game between different teams composed of community members. Some community member presents a problem and then teams have to compete to submit the best solution.  Members get points for playing the game and the community decides which solution is the best.  Teams are partially selected by community members and partially composed via random selection to increase the interaction between community members.
  • Use of real-time collaboration. What about having the ability to communicate with other community members using IM and other technologies. This is actually part of the SAP NetWeaver Portal.  Other ideas include the use of IM to enable members to help other members. There is alink “Talk to a live Expert” where an IM connection enables members to interact. A beginner in ABAP might be able to talk to expert via IM. Of course, such interaction can also take place via a forum or blog but IM might be more immediate.
  • I’ve seen the SAP and Second Life on SDN/BPX’s excursion into the Second Life realm. What about some part of the clubhouse allocated for ABAP or XI(PI) users. They could go hang-out and drink XI-related cocktails. The conversation may deal with XI or something entirely different.  Or what about project rooms where community members could get together to talk about some Community Pilot aspect.  This is similar to the concept of the Collaboration Room that is present SAP NetWeaver Knowledge Management technology.
  • The SDN / BPX sites are often complicated and overwhelming for inexperienced users.  What about having more experienced users help these inexperienced navigate the communities? Sort of hold their hand and say “Look, here is how you search successfully” or “This is how to create a blog”.

The idea of the scriptcurrently being promoted in the Pilot is another example where IM-like interaction (which is usually private) is published for others to view and benefit from. It is the informal and easy nature of IM communication that makes it so successful. Furthermore, the ability to communicate with individuals whom you might not know personally is also quite fascinating.

I know there is a life outside of the SDN / BPX communities (or at least I hope so…) but I feel that these two communities can provide the means for their members to interact with the goal of them being more successful (irregardless of the area considered). I am not saying that SDN/BPX should be converted into some lifestyle site with discussion of the latest trends in fashions and cars (although the SDN T-shirts are a step in this direction) just that the communities should help its members be creative.

This goal is also related to how to motivate “lurkers” to being contributors. Esther Dyson in her book “Release 2.0: A design for Living in the Digital Age  describes “lurkers” as people who only read or listen and who are not really part of a community.  I view these individuals as potential.  Most have knowledge to share – irregardless of how trivial. Of interest is to discover why these individuals can’t or don’t contribute. What is the threshold that must be reached before they contribute?

In my opinion, these users can be motivated to contribute by these measures:

  • Making creativity easy to perform. Community members should be given tools to quickly create blogs and initial WIKI entries. First time users should not be intimidated by the environment.  Everyone’s time is limited. Creativity should be easy.   At the TechEd in Vienna two years ago, there was a big push to get people to become bloggers.  I think that another push is necessary to get people involved in the WIKI.

  • Rewarding for usage that promote collaboration.  The point system is great but should be expanded to other areas. For example, answers to blog responses should be awarded as well.

I think that the SDN / BPX are great places to contribute – not only because the involved technology is cool but also because fellow community members are interesting.  Both communities should assist in further bringing their members together – either at the various get-togethers at the TechEd or in cyberspace.  It is this interaction that makes the communities so worthwhile. Although many of the conversations revolve around technology, it is the collaborative aspect that really makes it worthwhile.  

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  • Hi Richard,

    Very nice blog. I agree that there is such potential to use SDN for even greater interaction and collaboration -- a simple idea is to merge capabilities from SAPForge or SourceForge into SDN, so community members can collaborate in an "open source" way, for example, to write simple, cool portal components. The idea of allowing collaboration on diagrams is a wonderful idea.

    I think the part about lurkers can be explained in 2 ways:

    * In any social group, there are people who very active, some who are active but followers, some who join in kicking and screaming, and others who lurk. It is part of the social dynamic. It is tough to get everyone to participate, especially as the group grows.

    * What makes people participate is making it easy to contribute (by using email or IM instead of requiring the blog-writing or other complicated tool), and feeling appreciated. You mentioned some ideas for tools for making contributing easier and more interesting. As for appreciation, some of efforts of SDN in rewarding points help, but even more needs to be done to encourage people, to let them know they have something to contribute, to promote what they do to a wider audience, and to thank them -- and I think an email of appreciation or a round of applause goes further than points or a T-shirt or even a fleece jacket. It's a tough thing to do -- whether its 3-year-olds in kindergarten or high school athletes or SDN contributors.

    Thanks again for the blog.