Mathew Lowry

“Why don’t we just build our community on Facebook?”. Some thoughts after a month playing with Knowledge Hub.

A short discussion Steve and I had on the K-Hub Forums about the use of social media platforms for building internal and external communities was picked up and developed further in the Hangout we had with Liz and Michael (see the relevant section of the edited transcript), but I think the topic deserves more attention.

How can these platforms contribute to porous government? And in what circumstances is something else required?

So you want an online community?

In one corner you have those who believe all roads lead to Facebook. Now that’s wrong from just a communicators’ perspective, as anyone who’s seen their organic reach plummet whenever Facebook decides to tweak their algorithm (and some more cash out of your wallet) will agree.

But from the point of view of someone who wants to set up an internal community, choosing a Facebook Group looks like a compelling argument. After all, “everyone’s on Facebook”, and Groups don’t appear to be throttling reach. So far (but see below).

There are two responses to this. On the one hand, adopting – for example – Facebook Groups for your community means forcing everyone to use their Facebook account for work matters. As Michael pointed out in the hangout, a lot of research shows that for many people – particularly in the public sector – this is too much of a private/professional mix.

This issue for LinkedIn, however, is probably less serious.

Your community in their hands

But there’s a second problem for either platform – just because a FB or LinkedIn Group works for you today doesn’t mean it will do the same tomorrow, and if they decide to make changes there is precisely nothing you can do about it.

When I wrote about this last year (see Blogging on LinkedIn, or Paying on Facebook?) I didn’t mention my own professional nightmare from 2009, when I made Linked Q&As a central part of the social media strategy for a European business support website. Then LinkedIn just closed Q&As down. It didn’t fit their strategy anymore.

Tough luck for me, and the 1000s of people who’d invested massive amounts of time into answering Questions in order to build up their Knowledge Profile.

The bottom line is this: adopting one of these platforms does give you a shot at their audience, but:

“they decide how you will publish, and who will see it, on the basis of their commercial strategy, not on the basis of what you want to say, or how you want to say it”
– me again (sorry!) from October 2013


In both cases, moreover, there’s a massive problem with analytics. This is vital: one of the community facilitation Best Practices mentioned by Michael in the Hangout, for example, is analytically-driven iteration – i.e., “try stuff out, measure the results, and do more of what worked best“.

Both platforms are not as good on this front as you might assume. Many people, for example, think that the ‘view’ statistic they see for their LinkedIn blog posts are ‘page views’. ‘Fraid not – these are ‘stream views’: LinkedIn is telling you how often your post appeared in someone’s stream. They do NOT tell you how many people clicked the link and actually read your post!

And as Steve pointed out in the Hangout, once your Facebook Group gets to a certain size (~100 Members) Facebook no longer gives you metrics – from that point on you have little idea of what actually works, so you can no longer improve your Group.

Finally, of course, there’s no way out – with Groups on these platforms:

“there’s no export button or detailed membership lists – the things which are really important for group organisers – so you’re trapped”
– Steve, speaking in our Hangout

Build it yourself?

Of course if you take this to its logical conclusion, the only way you can have Total Control of your community’s destiny is to build it yourself.

The good news is that you will be able to have exactly what you want, and change it as you learn more about your community.

The bad news is that you’ll be building it from scratch in both senses – actually technically building the site, and then also building an audience from scratch. And that’s expensive. Still, it’s an option.

Knowledge Hub, niche platform

This is why I personally find Knowledge Hub so interesting for my purposes (public communication, participation & engagement).

On the one hand it is a platform, so:

  • Pro: you can access the inbuilt audience and don’t need to build your own site;
  • Con: you are limited to the K-Hub toolkit (which is, however, designed specifically for its niche audience).

On the other hand, it is not trying to take over the world and sell it to advertisers. Instead, it’s aimed at a niche: providing public sector workers with a safe environment for both internal and ‘mixed’ (internal and external) communities.
Hence the architecture (Personal Profiles joining community Groups); the three levels of Group privacy plus the ability to make specific Group subsections (forum, wiki, etc.) public; the sponsorship-based business model; etc.

Taken together, this allows online collaboration to be tailored to needs of newcomer users, and then allows those users to grow.

Take the ladder

To explain that, I think the ‘ladder’ model of community member recruitment might prove useful.

Instead of asking a new user to join the site, create a profile and start blogging from their first visit, I generally view the User Recruitment Journey as a sort of ladder, composed of many small steps, each encouraging you to take the next one. For example:



  • I visit the site as an anonymous user …
  • and subscribe to the enewlsetter / social media because the feed looks useful …
  • which encourages me to fully register to the site, via rewards such as newsletter customisation and visibility.
  • Now I’m a Member, the online facilitator might encourage me to introduce myself.
  • People respond, so now I’m getting more comfortable contributing.
  • Hey, my first post is in the newsletter, and it’s getting Likes and Comments!
  • Three months in and I’m now a fully fledged, high-profile Contributor, engaging frequently.

Encouraging porous government

I see that ladder operating both at the level of the individual K-Hub Group and in terms of the adoption of the platform as a whole.
For example, imagine someone in a public sector organisation first creates an internal group to – for example – work on a project within a department. It is entirely Private, known only to the Members invited into it, all working inside the same government organisation. This safe and tightly controlled environment is a perfect ‘first step’ for newcomers to work together online for the first time.

But as Members become comfortable, a platform like Knowledge Hub allows them to expand their online work in several dimensions. At the risk of pushing the ‘ladder’ metaphor too far, it could be drawn like this:


For some, the next obvious step may be to extend their Private Group to people working in other government departments in their own country, slowly enlarging the circle of trust by inviting them to join, one person at a time. This is more or less K-Hub’s original use case – after all, there will almost certainly be other civil servants facing the same issues in the same country.

Or maybe they’ll create a second Group to host that wider, national-level discussion, and keep their first group for more ‘private’ discussions. K-Hub makes that easy too: your Profile is independent of the Groups you’re in, and you can even import blog posts into the new Group, as I discovered when I joined (post to follow).

Others may go further and change their Group’s privacy setting from ‘Private’ to ‘Restricted’. This means that K-Hub Members can see that the Group exists, get a hint as to the activity within it, and apply to join. Given that there are already over 110k active members, this could open the Group up to:

  • people outside government entirely, creating ‘mixed communities’ of public servants, civil society, industry and citizens working on common problems, and/or participation platforms to improve policymaking
  • public servants in other governments joining in, allowing public servants in different countries to trade ideas, best practices, etc – obviously useful within the EU
  • both – i.e., creating a Group where public servants, civil society, industry and citizens from many countries can work together on common problems, trade ideas and insights, etc.

As a restricted Group, however, is still remains a ‘safe garden’, with membership controlled by the admins.

Unless they decide to Open up the Group entirely, as we have in the Public Sector Communications Group, where only some sections (e.g., the Group’s Forum, Ideas & Wiki) are not viewable by anonymous visitors.

So I’m starting to see how K-Hub’s architecture is tailored to the public sector’s needs for “porous government”, where each civil servant can:

  • work with their colleagues in their own government unit, other units and even civil servants in other countries
  • create participation projects with people outside government, and indeed even bring in citizens and stakeholders from other countries if they wish
  • in a highly controlled and safe way, without having to rely on American social media platforms for whom they (the public servants, citizens, etc.) are the product being sold.

But no platform is perfect for everything. To paraphrase Liz and Steve from our Hangout:

“This is totally about the right tool for the right job. Facebook? Fine, of you’re an elected counselor or politician, and you need to engage with your local community. They’re probably on Facebook, so it’s the right tool for that job. LinkedIn is where you go to get a job. And maybe Knowledge Hub is where you go to do your job.

[Disclosure: Knowledge Hub (“K-Hub”) has engaged me for a few days pre-conference to manage the “Public Sector Communications” Group, but I only accepted because I think it rocks; I’m reposting here on my own time; my views remain my own.]


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