To achieve its integrated Web 2.0 Enterprise Experience, Cisco’s Intranet Strategy Group also launched an initial discussion forum pilot. They began to enable employees to share thoughts and ideas and start threaded conversations, to discuss topics, and to ask questions and get answers from the Cisco community. The group envisioned several ways Cisco employees could use discussion forums including as a means of exchanging ideas on designated topics, and as a way to facilitate information exchange within a team or group.
The group realized that discussion topics of common interest could be registered on an enterprise site, enabling experts to share knowledge on a particular subject. The main idea was to foster and chronicle fully interactive conversations between individuals, subject matter experts, groups, and teams. Although blogs were identified as the means of one person posting their ideas and getting feedback, employees were encouraged to use discussion forums to enable multiple people to participate in the conversation.
The Intranet Strategy Group identified several integration points for discussion forums: integration with intranet site content, with community context, and as a connection from blog comments. Cisco users are able to navigate through the hierarchy of discussion areas, selecting from among the various discussion topics. Like blogs, discussion forums are RSS-enabled, so users can subscribe to get updates on their favorite topics. Also, forums enable users to click on the name of the forum poster, which links to a page showing that person’s activity in the forum space and, eventually, a link to his or her Cisco Directory information page.
Each organization has appointed a point of contact or team to manage forums within their organization. At the end of January 2009 there were more than a hundred open group discussion forums, and the top five forums with the most threads were Wikis, Blogs (Internal), Discussion Forums, General Discussions, and Collaboration Learning. And that doesn’t include discussion forums enabled through collaboration community tools that have evaluated or deployed.
Cisco’s discussion forum pilot led to the establishment of a few basic guidelines provided by Molly Barry, web program/project manager for Cisco’s discussion forum initiative, also highlighted on the CCoE site. Barry suggests discussion forums
- Should be used to foster and chronicle fully interactive conversations.
- Occur between individuals, subject matter experts, groups, and teams working together and/or needing information, answers, or solutions that can be added to and referenced anytime.
- Enable gathering of feedback and multiple opinions.
- Establish a venue for community-driven support as well as Q&A.
According to Barry, discussion forum usage at Cisco also led to a few guidelines on when to use them. For example, users should use a discussion forum when they
- Intend to foster or display a dialogue between individuals, groups, and teams.
- Can provide support for questions and answers as a reference to an audience.
And, of course, the pilot also helped identify a few guidelines on when not to use them, such as when users
- Don’t desire or need to start a full conversation.
- Are unable to regularly monitor the forum and respond to messages posted there.
Discussion forums launched enterprise-wide in March 2008.
One particularly interesting example of a successful discussion forum at Cisco is the one built by Cisco’s green-minded employees. Cisco’s EcoBoard, established in October 2006, developed the vision and strategy to enable the company to be more “green” through its operations, products, and architecture solutions for its customers. In an effort to augment traditional forms of communication, email, news stories, and so on, Kenis Dunne, executive communication manager, launched the “Let’s Talk” discussion forum, shown in Figure 10-5. Note the video feature contained in the forum page.
Figure 10-5 Cisco’s green “Let’s Talk” discussion forum.
Dunne started a number of discussion forum threads on the site to facilitate conversations on Cisco’s green initiative and topics such as telecommuting and water bottles. Key takeaways, according to Dunne, include the following:
- Leverage a logical framework to guide the pattern of discussion threads.
- Mirror content employees begin seeing elsewhere.
- Partner with subject matter experts to enhance content.
- The best enabler for success is a community already interested in your body of work.
- Look viral, but act strategic.
- Watch each thread, let software prompt you with updates.
- The goal is to be effective and accurate and avoid miscommunication.
- Use as an additional communication channel to augment news.
- Push to eliminate email while extending access to the full story.
- Promote awareness via voicemail and executive champions.
- Forums provide more in-depth, effective commentary on a topic than a survey.
- Forums give employees a place to have their voices heard.
The forum is also associated with Cisco’s internal employee website as a means to keep employees current on this popular environmental initiative.
Cisco has established a number of internal discussion forums focused on providing technical support to employees. Maya Winthrop, for example, is listed as Cisco’s top discussion forum contributor. With nearly 450 posts, Winthrop moderates a cross-functional CCoE technologies and tools forum, answering user questions on WebEx Connect, the iPhone, and so on.
Cisco IT is currently leveraging a discussion forum to support rolling out WebEx Connect across the company. The forum contains threads focused on service alerts, frequently asked questions (FAQs), support, suggested enhancements, and so on. User feedback gained from these threads provides the product support team with insight into performance issues and training needs, but more importantly user requests for enhancements and new features help shape product support and development.
In addition, Cisco’s WebEx Connect user community can not only provide ideas for new features and help prioritize them, but also support one another or develop solutions and share them with the community. Recently, new WebEx Connect users identified a need to invite entire groups to join a Connect team space, using a Cisco Mailer alias list as the source of names in the group. Because the capability was not on the product delivery roadmap, members of the Connect user community devised steps to enable the capability, which was turned into the Cisco Mailer BulkInvite Widget made available soon afterward.
Cisco is also using discussion forums to support customers and partners. At Linksys, for example, voluntary discussion forums with customers and partners, in the form of message boards, have been in use for some time. The reasons are simple: Forums engage customers, and engaged customers stay customers and spend more. Customers use forums to find answers, to connect with others, and to make a contribution.
Customers engaged in discussions remain on the company website 50% longer, and the customers who most frequently post comments on discussion forums actually spend more. According to the 90-9-1 rule, 90% of customers browse and look at discussion forums, but may never post; 9% participate; 1% will post most of the content. That 1% is considered the super user, the person that raises a hand and contributes.
The importance of recognizing contribution to discussion forums cannot be overstated, as even just one super user can save the company huge amounts in support costs. At Cisco’s Linksys and other companies, support forums are being used in lieu of phone support to help reduces costs. Live customer support, for example, costs 87% more per transaction than forums and other self-service options.
Another advantage to discussion forums, besides costs, is the quantity and quality of the content itself. The tribal knowledge that customers, partners, product teams, sales, support, services, and marketing personnel accumulate through discussion on a particular question or problem can be provided in a self-service mode. It can also serve as a knowledge base for new hires and phone support teams.
Implemented successfully, discussion forums can add huge value to the business, particularly if the quality level of the content is closely guarded and exceptional behavior is applauded. Forums require ongoing management, promotion, and strong signposting to drive traffic to them. They also require the proper structure and atmosphere to remain healthy, that is, to engage users and keep them coming back.
In a healthy community there will be at least 5–10 posts per day. This significantly reduces back-and-forth email traffic as the conversation takes place via the forum. In some Cisco forums, a hundred or more daily posts may occur, as engineers around the globe often contribute to technical forums, again reducing Cisco email traffic.
Cisco learned the value of enabling external customers and partners to participate in customer service–focused community forums on Christmas Eve 2006, when an earthquake that hit the South Pacific brought down its Linksys contact centers. The holidays are a busy time for the centers as consumers who buy Linksys products as presents reach out with questions. Instead, customers turned to a forum, enabled through Lithium Technologies’ online community–based CRM solution, for support and customers began helping customers.
The online community enabled super users, many of whom were non-employees, to share their knowledge, answering questions about Linksys products, providing live, peer-based support throughout the holiday rush. The community response even enabled Linksys to discontinue customer support via email, reducing support costs. By mid-2008 the Linksys community forum had 100,000 registered users and more than 7 million views. This story was broadly communicated, which in itself proved rewarding to those who took part. Now let’s turn our attention to wikis.