Take a large pot of confusion, stir in a false start or two, add a dash of underdone technology and garnish with conflicting advice from consultants.
Bottled under the name electronic commerce, this witches' brew is being sold to corporate Australia as a universal restorative and pick-me-up. Share market investors, tycoons and pundits all confidently expect this snake oil mixture will evolve sooner or later into a wonder drug for business.
But in the haze of hype surrounding e-commerce, the one ingredient with the highest confidence rating is turning out to be the concept of online communities. The reason is simple. A healthy online community automatically fosters the kind of customer relationships for which most businesses would cheerfully give up their chairman's first-born son. In the offline world, companies devote lavish advertising budgets to firming up fragile links with customers. In the online universe of virtual communities, customer feedback is only the click of an interactive button away.
In Australia, a young company called Med-E-Serv is attracting attention from the heavy hitters because it can claim to have spent more time creating virtual communities with more impressive results than anyone else. A company whose stakeholders include Telstra, database powerhouse Oracle, computer giant NEC and four Victorian universities has just anted up at least a million dollars to buy a controlling interest in Med-E-Serv.
Med-E-Serv's strength lies in its hard-won knowledge about the proper care and feeding of online communities, an art form still in its infancy worldwide.
Lex McArthur, CEO of Emerge, the company which recently picked up a 65 per cent stake in Med-E-Serv, freely acknowledges the reason for the investment. "What excited us about Med-E-Serv is that it has put into practice what other companies here and overseas are only theorising about," McArthur says. "They are the most advanced exemplars in Australia of what virtual communities are all about."Med-E-Serv's virtual communities are peopled with medical professionals. Today, some 40 per cent of the doctors online in Australia use Med-E-Serv. Among specialist groups, that number rises as high as 70 per cent. Med-E-Serv has also branched into running virtual health conventions and hosts Web sites and forums for many of Australia's medical colleges and pharmaceutical companies.
In the past five years, Med-E-Serv has distilled its wealth of experience in setting up and maintaining vibrant online communities into an eight-point recipe. So critical is the balance that a virtual community has only a 50-50 chance of surviving if even one of the eight points is lacking, says Dr Lynn Hendy, Med-E-Serv's clinical director.
Neglect two of the eight and chances of success slump to zero, she claims.
"It's not rocket science, but based on our five years' experience, if you don't get it right, the virtual group just won't coalesce. Individuals drop out, because they aren't enjoying the experience, and the group implodes."Dr Hendy is reluctant to give away Med-E-Serv's intellectual property by offering much more than tantalising glimpses into the do's and don'ts of running successful online communities. By reading between the lines, however, a number of the most crucial success factors can be gleaned. Among the most important commandments are:¥ Get the numbers right. Creating online workshops peopled by medical practitioners who share their diagnostic insights and update their skills is one of the three legs on which Med-E-Serv's business rests. Those workshops tend to fail when they have either too many participants or too few.
By trial and error, Med-E-Serve has discovered that exceeding 70 participants is as dangerous for the long-term stability of an online group as falling below 20. The online input from more than 70 individuals can't be integrated into a harmonious whole and the group tends to fracture under its own weight. In communications terms, the noise-to-signal ratio becomes unacceptable.
Going in the opposite direction is equally fatal, because an online group that falls below 20 appears to suffer a form of heat death. "You need a certain number of people to start an interesting conversation going, because nobody wants to go first," Hendy says. "If you don't have enough, you get a cold room; and we've found that anything under 20 isn't enough." The optimum number of group members appears to be around 50, says Med-E-Serv general manager Judy Morgan.
· Appoint a moderator for every online forum. Groups demand leaders, and online groups are no exception. A trained facilitator is absolutely essential to any discussion group, because "without one, people don't get involved; they get lost and the whole thing falls apart", Morgan says. The moderator's job is to motivate participants and steer the agenda. To smooth the path between a moderator and members of a group, Med-E-Serv always posts an image of the moderator online along with his or her background.
· Paint a human face on the technology. Every participant in Med-E-Serv's online workshops must start by introducing themselves via potted histories which outline who they are and what they do. This little tip is one of the secrets of Med-E-Serv's success, Morgan says.
"It has a huge impact on lowering the barriers to talking. People want to know a bit about the person who is doing the talking. If we don't do this, they don't open up and talk to one another.""Technology is distancing, and people working online can often feel they are working in isolation. So it is vitally important to reinforce the message that standing behind all the technology, someone is there."· Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. Building a critical mass of members by offering enticing services is the first step in setting up a stable online group. Of equal or greater importance is encouraging the growth of content contributed by the membership itself.
"Member-generated content is the real driving force behind a successful online community," Emerge's McArthur says. It is what creates the feelings of ownership and trust that keep members returning to the community, he says.
"That is the part that is really difficult, and it is where Med-E-Serve really shines."McArthur points to an online project organised by Med-E-Serv to educate general practitioners about best-practice asthma treatments. A national authority on asthma moderated the online group, but participants also shared their own diagnostic tips and strategies, with dramatic results.
"The online comments were so amazing I almost fell over," McArthur recalls.
"Doctors were saying that the course had changed their thinking and work habits entirely."· Neglect screen design at your peril. The screen is the online community's common work environment. Like any office, the extent to which it encourages the comfort of its inhabitants and lessens their stress directly has an impact on the quality of their work output. So taking extra time and thought over the design of the user interface more than pays for itself in the long run.
When Hendy and Med-E-Serv's two other founding directors launched the company in 1994, they gambled Australia's health sector would make a natural fit with the World Wide Web.
They saw the Web as an excellent communications matrix for people sharing professional interests. Medical professionals -- by their nature heavily dependent on networking with one another -- seemed a logical group to target.
"The Web offers the opportunity for a network-based community to deal with one another very effectively, and there is no patient episode that doesn't involve more than one member of the health community," Dr Hendy says. In retrospect, Med-E-Serv's belief that the Web represented the technology strategy for creating an electronic health community was a bit too advanced for its time, Hendy says. "The health community is very conservative and our ideas were not well received in some quarters."Pathology labs, for example, chose to ignore the Web in favour of electronic data interchange (EDI), a strategy that sector is still pursuing. Another idea that still hasn't left the ground is Web-based access to hospital record systems.
Those setbacks have proven minor, as Med-E-Serv went on to achieve the critical mass needed to make the transition to a successful, nationally-based company.
"It actually has taken us longer than we thought, but it hasn't cost as much as we expected," Hendy says.
"We have effectively created the virtual health community in this country.
Along the way we have invented the behavioural models, which is really the core skill. Ultimately you are only as good as the behavioural models you can describe for the community.
"Because we have health people with 17 and 20 years' experience in our business, we know the sector inside out, so we can accurately describe what will work and what won't work," Hendy says. The models Med-E-Serv has built for handling online health communities have generic features that can be transposed into other communities.
For example, to make any collaboration work, a venue is needed, as well as a moderator and resources. But that generic framework needs to be fine-tuned for each different community. So a specific understanding of, say, accounting, would be necessary to customise the software model for an online accounting community.
In short, Med-E-Serv's future as it expands out of the health sector probably involves marketing partnerships with companies which possess the knowledge to customise Med-E-Serv's offerings for other sectors.
Virtual World Communities:
CIO (US) Online Survey Results (October 1998)*Please note: the term Internet is used to denote Internet, intranet, or extranet.
This survey was designed to examine people's perceptions of virtual communities. The majority of respondents (71 per cent) belong to between 1-4 virtual communities. What constitutes a VC was intentionally not described, as the term may mean many different things to different people (from e-mail discussion groups to video conferencing). A majority of respondents (86 per cent combined) felt the best thing about VC's was the extension of the real world, and the ability to interact with a broader range of people.
Seventy per cent of respondents replied that although a virtual community felt like a legitimate community, it was not the same as a real world community (barring obvious physical differences). Most respondents also stated that at least some face-to-face communication was necessary for complex relationships to form (partly due to trust issues).
Total number of usable responses = 230.
Some respondents did not answer all questions.
Percentages are rounded and are based on total number of respondents answering the question.
Location of respondents (those who provided this information).
Africa/Middle East: 5
Europe (East & West): 24
North America: 161
South America: 3
Title of respondents (those who provided this information).
Executive (for example, CEO, president, VP of IS/IT): 87Manager: 39Technical: (for example, Web developer, system analyst, engineer): 41Sales and Marketing (all levels): 11Writer/Editor: 8Other (for example, student, professor, researcher): 26 1. Have you joined a business or technical related virtual community? Yes, 1-3 groups: 54%Yes, 4 or more groups: 17%I have in the past: 5%No: 16%No but plan to in the future: 8%2. If yes to question 1, what platform?Internet: 60%Intranet: 2%Internet and intranet: 27%Not applicable: 11%3. If yes to question 1, what types have you joined? (raw numbers of 180 who answered this multiple choice question, not including n/a answers.)Technical: 122Business professional or social societies: 145Collaborative effort: 57Other: 25Top 5 Response Types:technical & social: 54social: 30technical & social & collaborative: 27technical: 22social & collaborative: 14 4. If no to question 1, what is the main reason why not?Too busy: 43%Don't think they are effective: 1% Can't find one that suits my needs: 49% Rather interact face-to-face: 7%The rest of the questions pertain to those who are members of business/technical related online communities.
5. Are you an active participant?
Yes, in all I have joined: 14%
Yes, in some I have joined: 59%
No, just observing: 27%
6. Does it "feel" like a real world community to you (barring obvious physical differences)? Yes, just like a real world community: 18%No, it's a pale comparison to a real world community: 12% No, but it's a real community nonetheless, it just differs greatly compared to a real world one: 70%7. Is face-to-face communication necessary for the mostin depth/complex interpersonal interaction? Yes, always: 15% Yes, sometimes: 68%No: 16%Not sure: 1%8. Are there some peer groups you'd have no contact with if it wasn't for virtual communities? Yes: 85% No: 15%9. What is the best thing about online communities? Interacting with people I would not have a chance to otherwise: 65%Extending real world communities: 21%Creating a community that is entirely different, with different expectations and outcomes comparedto a real world community: 11%Other: 2%None of the above: 1% 10. What is the worst thing about online communities?No direct contact with people: 21%I need to see or hear people: 9%Information overload: 54%Other: 8% None of the above: 8%Team SpiritTo gain insights into what makes online communities work, it is helpful to think about successful sporting teams, says Dr Lynn Hendy, Med-E-Serv's clinical director.
She believes the same behavioural models that underpin teamwork in the sporting arena also rule the world of online communities. A soccer team, for example, knows it must practise at a certain time and place. It understands the roles of coach and captain, and its members all conform to the same rules of play. As important to a successful team are the unwritten rules, such as retiring to a pub together at the end of a training session.
Those same behavioural models work as well in the world of online communities as they do for sporting teams, Hendy believes.
One aspect of online life which Med-E-Serv studiously ignores is the real-time chat session. Such sessions violate seven of the eight fundamental precepts governing successful online groups, Hendy says. As a result, all the online groups run by Med-E-Serv rely on asynchronous communications. In other words, group members don't interact simultaneously, but have time to reflect on the messages they get before firing off a reply. This allows them to set the pace they are comfortable with, rather than having to accommodate themselves to somebody else's schedule. It also produces more reasoned replies than hasty, off-the-cuff efforts, an effect which improves the learning curve for every member of the group.
Med-E-Serv's membership base now stands at more than 10,000 medical professionals, with new members joining at the rate of about 500 a month. In keeping with the personalised, interactive nature of online communities, word of mouth, not traditional advertising, is feeding that growth rate.
This illustrates why the concept of virtual communities conjures up such tempting pictures for companies pondering how to win maximum leverage from their electronic commerce investments.
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