Community Platforms for Collaborative Team Working
There are two types of community platform relevant to collaborative team working: (1) forums; and (2) ‘chat' or chat rooms. Each represent ways to send messages and share information, but the two have fundamental differences.
A forum is an online discussion site where conversations take place in 'threads' of posted messages under 'topics' of conversation. Forum messages are usually longer than single-line chats, they are archived for reference and can be submitted at the user's convenience e.g. 1am in the morning. Chat systems, on the other hand, are designed for short, ad hoc, real-time conversations when both parties are online at the same time i.e. synchronous conferencing.
Many community platforms incorporate elements of both concepts, for example you might be able to post a long chat message which can be read later, or you could make a short forum post that is responded to immediately. But as the two system concepts meet different needs, most community platforms are either one or the other at their core.
Forums are geared towards accuracy and longevity of considered content. Information is structured hierarchically in a tree-like format and can usually have sub-forums within forums if required. If set up logically and diligently, they are simple to navigate and quick to search.
Forum systems need to be managed well to get the best out of them, but the pay-back should be authoritative conclusions to discussions and projects, the development of meaningful online working relationships, and the flexibility for users to catch-up and contribute as and when it suits them. The nature of forums usually promotes team interactions that are more professional than with the immediacy of chat, leading to a better focus on the task-at-hand.
A good forum system will also let users upload pictures and documents within conversation threads, keeping everything together in a logical, time-ordered way. Comprehensive notification features help admins and users control the system emails they receive, and a user-tagging feature automatically notifies users when they are mentioned in a post (similarly to how Facebook does it).
Examples of popular forum-type systems are:
- Vanilla ( vanillaforums.com ) - mature, reliable and stable; full-featured; very flexible; granular notifications; extensible API for integration with other systems.
- Discourse ( discourse.org ) - clean interface; simple to use but consequently limited in features and ability to customise; its deliberately ‘flat' structure can limit the focus of information and conversations.
- Google Groups ( groups.google.com ) - global reach; good for public discussions; very basic; lacks conversation threads; not well suited to ongoing team working scenarios.
Chat systems are more about speed of communication than content longevity. They encourage social chat (the clue is in the name) and are not usually geared up to archiving or searching past content. They are very good for connecting remote workers together who are at their desks, collaborating at that moment on projects that progress at an immediate pace. They are not so good for building a searchable archive or 'knowledge-base’, which is where forums excel.
Examples of popular chat-type systems are:
- Facebook Messenger ( messenger.com - originally called Facebook Chat ) - the benchmark for all other purely chat systems; free but contains ads; can be very distracting in a workplace scenario; difficult to protect privacy.
- Slack ( slack.com ) - primarily built for real-time teamwork conversations (text and video); has some forum-like features; organises chats into ‘channels’ but messages can quickly become disorganised nonetheless.
- Microsoft Teams ( microsoft.com/en-gb/microsoft-365/microsoft-teams ) - Microsoft's direct competitor app to Slack; modern; better security features than Slack; integrates with Office 365; reviews often suggest Microsoft Teams is confusing to use.
Which System Should We Use?
If a work-based team or community needs to seek or share information beyond the moment, or discuss ideas and ongoing projects in depth, a forum-based system such as Vanilla or Discourse makes perfect sense as it is easy to find and comment on both current and past topics.
Depth of discussion is encouraged by the forum paradigm, whereas immediacy is the chat system’s forte. So if a community or work-team is desk-based and values the need for instant communication above considered discussion, a chat-based system makes more sense. But know the limitations of the tools you are using and play to their strengths.
Beware of trying to merge the two paradigms into a single working practice - those who have tried usually report that confusion results as information falls between the cracks of the chat and the forum components. Know when to chat in the moment and when to discuss in depth, and ensure that your staff do too. This way the chat will be lost over time but the discussions will remain in a growing knowledge-base.
Chat-based collaboration systems such as Slack and MS Teams do have more of a forum feel than pure chat systems such as Facebook, but user reviews often paint a picture of confusion caused by the mix of disparate concepts: transitory chat and ongoing discussion.
The humble forum is seen by some as ‘old school’ because it’s what most people used for online discussions before Facebook became a ‘thing’. Yet over a thousand businesses run deployments of Discourse, and global companies such as Adobe, Spotify, Acer, SAP, Nokia and even Facebook use Vanilla forums to keep their staff and customer communities together ...perhaps there’s life in the old dog yet!
Author: Roy Sinclair started Sinclair Design in 1987, initially as a design consultancy but then as a strategic communications consultancy.