Mathew Lowry

Trans-European online Communities of Practice should become a key element in the European online community, but examples so far are few. This post looks at DG INFSO, which has been using online community principles since 2002, two years before the phrase “Web 2.0” was invented.

This post first explores what a Community of Practice is and their role in European communications, both for specialist and non-specialist audiences. It then looks at one way of building them – the close integration of physical events and online spaces – via a slidecast of how the Commission built its (I think) first community-oriented event website.

A community of what?

The concept of a community of practice (often abbreviated as CoP) refers to the process of social learning that occurs and shared sociocultural practices that emerge and evolve when people who have common goals interact as they strive towards those goals. – Wikipedia

“A community of practice is a community that learns” – anon

The benefits to the Commission of sponsoring successful CoPs are too numerous to list here in any detail. Almost all Commission programmes, after all, focus on helping people in different Member States exchange and develop ideas and best practices, and many fund trans-European projects to overcome the national and linguistic barriers separating experts in areas as diverse as research and gender equality policy.

To this end, most EC programmes organise events, bringing people together for a day or two to learn from each other and discuss future directions.

Better programmes, and a communications bonus for Europe

The benefits of a successful online Community of Practice should be obvious, but they extend to beyond the members of the Community itself: by making the learning within the CoP open to more people, the programme gets new participants, new ideas, better projects, and a more effective platform to disseminate its results.

Apart from better and more effective programmes aimed at specialists, there’s a huge communications bonus for wider audiences. Consider a non-specialist interested, say, in butterflies. She searches online for information, and stumbles across an EC-sponsored online community of people from across the Member States, exchanging best practices and developing projects for promoting organic farming.

She gets her question answered – either by the site, or by someone on it. And she sees the Commission, helping experts from across Europe to work and learn together, exchanging ideas and ensuring they don’t reinvent the wheel 27 times.

She sees, in other words:

  • ‘EU added value’ in action
  • in an area she cares about.

Compared with the material most non-specialists see about Europe, this would make a nice change. Good communications about Europe, after all, results from good delivery of European added value.

Slidecast: Event in a Box

But how to build them? The only successful example I know of is one where the programme closely integrated its physical event with the event’s website, using a website approach nicknamed Event in a Box.

First, some history. In mid-2001 I joined DG Information Society for what turned out to be 6 years. INFSO funds research – a lot of it – and at the time was holding annual 3-day IST Events to bring stakeholders together to discuss the programme, related policies, and to network together to form project consortia (EC research requires partners from multiple countries).

The first site I and my colleagues built for them was for the IST 2002 event (Copenhagen). It was my first to feature user-generated content, and was (I think – I have asked around) the first by the Commission to feature online community features such as Personal Profiles, Contributions, Comments … what we now call Web2.0.

Last year, DG INFSO kindly allowed me to adapt some of the slides I made internally and use them for a slidecast for my company’s “best practices” intranet. They’ve now permitted me to publish the slidecast more widely.

I’m not apologising for its length – these sites are complex, and describing everything in this film in text form would take dozens of pages. Because of Dailymotion’s 20 minute limit, I’ve had to split the film into two: the first (~16 min) sets out the main features of Event in a Box, with a few extras and examples in the second, much shorter film.

Part 1 – main features

Running notes:

  • 0 - 04:50: what should a good event website feature? Calls for Proposals - crowdsourcing from the community to define the event programme and exhibition; an event extranet for all contributors and subcontractors;
  • 04:50 - 11:34: starting with someone who successfully proposed an Exhibit, a tour of the site's interconnected people profiles, event content (exhibits, conference sessions, etc), horizontal and vertical interfaces, and comments from all participants.
  • 11:34 - end: back to powerpoint to summarise all this - community building via personal profiles and calls for proposals; protected extranet and logistics benefits; results in summary.

Part 2 - other features and examples

Running notes:

  • 0 - 01:00: browse people by name, organisation, country; smart search;
  • 01:00 - 02:55: best exhibit competition; press section; photograph database; integration with newsroom;
  • 02:55 - : another example ("Bridging Broadband Gap"): opening up an invitation-only event to a wider audience by combining Event in a Box with streaming.

By the way, I don't go into as many details as I could have. When setting up such sites there are so many detailed policy questions which you can change from one event to the next - in 2006, for example, you had to have a public profile if you wanted to submit any proposals or comment on anything, whereas in 2008 (after my time) this was not the case.

Key Points

The Event in a Box approach:

  • creates a compelling, highly interactive website - when the networking Call in 2006 was closed and the community's ideas were published, there were over 8000 comments in the first month, which was August;
  • each comment is a networking tool, tying together people around event items (conference and networking sessions, exhibits, etc.);
  • crowdsourcing milestones (Calls for Papers, Proposals and Exhibits, Voting/Rating periods, etc.) are used throughout the preceding 9-12 months to stimulate contributions, interest and visibility;
  • events are opened up to those who cannot physically attend;
  • a community develops around an event, and by extension the DG's programmes and policies,
  • stakeholders identify each other and discuss ideas before the event, thus ensuring they get the most out of the short time they'll have face-to-face;
  • post-event online discussions point to the next event - IST 2006, for example, was followed by a networking event 4 months later, with users able to re-use and then tailor their online profile for each event. In this way, the online conversation continues throughout the year, punctuated by the events and their various milestones.
  • man-months of event logistics and web publication work saved.
  • And you get a free set of steak knives! Send no money now. ūüėČ

Success factors

I've been looking at other CoP sites - there are nine here, for example, and all are effectively dead. The key to success for the IST event was the complete integration of the website with the event, and the complete integration of both with the wider organisation (in this case, the research programme), which thus offers real rewards for active participation.

A higher profile at an ICT event, after all, could mean finding the right partners, and make the difference between getting and not getting funding. Nothing nebulous about that.

As is so often the case, that integration between website and organisation is the true challenge. The rest is just implementation. Today, I sure wouldn't be using Coldfusion!

Anyway, I've asked before, but why not again - any other examples around?

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