Making online communities commercially sustainable

monetiseThis is a conversation I get into quite a lot, and I’ve been prompted to blog about it by a couple of emails I have recently received from the team behind the Knowledge Hub.

A bit of background, for those that need it: the Knowledge Hub is a UK government funded online collaboration platform. It has recently been spun out of the public sector and is now run by CapacityGRID, which itself is a trading arm of the outsourcing company Liberata.

Time for a disclaimer. The Knowledge Hub folks are of course free to do what they like, and they are by no means beholden to what people like me might say about the decisions they make about their platform. It’s really not much of my business, not least because, while I am a member, I’m not a very good one, and don’t get involved all that often. I’ve not been involved in any conversations about this stuff and have no idea what constraints the team are operating under. So, don’t read this as direct criticism, more my musings on commercialising online community spaces.

The Knowledge Hub is remaining free to those working in public service and what is something known still as the third sector. However, those working in private enterprises are being charged £80 a year, which equates to just over £6.50 a month – not a lot, if we’re honest. Feverbee’s CommunityGeek membership costs $35 a month, for example, and can be considered good value.

However, I don’t personally think this is a great idea, for the following reasons:

  • Lumping all ‘private sector’ people into one basket is pretty unfair. It puts (for example) WorkSmart in the same bracket as Capita, or Serco, or any giant company of that ilk
  • Making it a commercial transaction can legitimise commercial activity. If someone is being made to pay for something, they might decide they need to get their money’s worth out of it, which may mean more overt selling, and less willingness to share insight for free
  • Most networks* thrive on having lots of members and any kind of barrier to entry – such as having to pony up eighty quid before you are able to join – can  have a significant impact on growth
  • Some of those people who are now being asked to pay will have invested already in the network in terms of their time, their knowledge and their ideas. Does that investment of social capital have no value? That seems to be what this decision is saying.
  • It creates a “them and us” type situation, introducing a new dynamic in terms of the divisions of the community, which can’t be healthy.
  • It isn’t going to make very much money. The vast majority of private sector users won’t pay and will leave. They will go to free spaces like LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs and other online forums. The actual result of this decision will probably result in a net loss to the community – a few quid in revenue wiped out by a loss of members and activity.

Fundamentally, it feels to me like a somewhat lazy decision, made due to a lack of much creative thinking about how sustainability might be achieved. “We need to make some money? Let’s charge our users!” I don’t see Facebook doing that, or Google. Friends Reunited did, of course, and we know how that ended up.

So what might be the alternatives? Here’s some ideas from the top of my head:

  • Sell extra functionality – rather than charging for something that has always been free, come up with something new that could be charged for. Effectively, a freemium style model. There’s a bunch of stuff in the original roadmap for the Knowledge Hub that hasn’t been implemented yet, which would provide some instant ideas for new features.
  • Sell services – CapacityGRID already has a consultancy offer, why not develop that to meet the needs of the members of the community? Running a big community ought to give plenty of insight into what sort of support is needed and how it needs to be delivered.
  • Charge for non-intended use – there is a way I think of legitimately charging for the existing service, and that is where it is being used for another purpose than the original vision of cross sector knowledge sharing. One example is where groups are being used to manage projects, for example – effectively using it as an internal business tool. This sort of use could be charged for, I think, as it would otherwise be something those organisations would have to pay for from another supplier.
  • Training and events – similar to selling services, a business model can be built around providing events and training opportunities. After all, with all those members and all that data, it ought to be possible to find out what people’s pain points are and what support they need. The cost can still be kept low for delegates by using commercial sponsors.
  • Commercial content deals with suppliers – rather than charging the private sector for nothing new, provide some benefit in return for larger sums. Content marketing is a good option here – do a deal to produce some sponsored content on behalf of a vendor, whether a white paper, a webinar or a series of blog posts.

So there are five ideas, you can have them for free. None are guaranteed to work and I am sure big holes could be quickly poked in them all. You’d probably need to find a way of doing all of them, rather than sticking with just one revenue stream.

However, I genuinely think that any one of these would be more effective, and less divisive, than just charging a specific group of users for access.

What are your thoughts? How else might an online community be made commercially sustainable, without alienating the membership?

* there are many exceptions to this statement of course, including the aforementioned CommunityGeek. They tend to be niche networks that put a lot of value on exclusivity, though, and I am not certain that is true of the Knoweldge Hub. They also usually have the charging in place from the get-go and don’t charge people for something they had previously had for nothing

Help me save the Knowledge Hub (in some form)

An email from the Knowledge Hub team at the LGA:

As Knowledge Hub user I felt it necessary to contact you with this news. You may have read in today’s press due to cost the LGA are proposing to close the Knowledge Hub facility. There is statutory 30 day consultation period (consultation closes on 23 June) on these proposals. As project lead I am very sorry to have to bring you this news. Many of you have invested time and effort in the platform and we as a team have worked extremely hard to deliver what we feel is a valuable and vital service for local government at this difficult time.

The organisation has decided that in the face of further cuts funding is unsustainable.

This is a terrible shame for local government. Cross sector sharing of knowledge and learning is vital if councils are to meet the challenges they face.

I know I could make the Knowledge Hub work: with a change of technology, a new business model, and some great community management.

I think we can make the Knowledge Hub – or whatever it might be called – like LocalGovCamp – only all the time and everywhere.

I suspect I need to convince the LGA to let me do this. After all, I want the existing content on the Knowledge Hub to import into the new system, and the user data too. Otherwise, starting from scratch will most likely make life extremely difficult.

So, I’d like some help. The best form is probably in expressions of support, perhaps publicly on the comments of this post. If you think local government needs a knowledge sharing platform, and you think I might be the person to make a decent fist of it, then do please let me, and the LGA, know.

Thanks!

We need to talk about the Knowledge Hub

Or at least, about where people in public service can go to share ideas, ask questions and promote good practice.

Back in the summer of 2006, when I was working as a lowly Risk Management Officer (yes, you read that right) at a county council, I joined the nascent Communities of Practice platform, which was being developed by Steve Dale at the then Improvement and Development Agency.

I thought it was fantastic, and joined in with some gusto – so much so in fact that I did attract a little criticism from colleagues who thought – probably quite rightly – that I ought to have been concentrating on the day job.

One of the first things I did was to launch the Social Media and Online Collaboration community, which I ran until my circumstances changed and Ingrid took over. Under Ingrid’s watchful eye, the community grew into one of the biggest and most popular on the platform.

Over time though it became clear that the CoP platform wasn’t keeping up with the technological times: the interface was a little clunky and a few things didn’t really make sense in an age of hyper-sharing on Facebook and Twitter.

So the Knowledge Hub was born, to take things forward. Only, I’m not sure it has.

I’m not wanting to bash the hard work that people have put in. All I will do is describe my experience – that people aren’t using the Knowledge Hub, and activity appears to be way down compared to the CoPs.

On the rare occasions I log in, I find the site incredibly, almost unusably, slow – and the interface hard to find my way around. I mean, I spend my life on the internet, and I just don’t really know what I am meant to do on the Knowledge Hub.

I’ve been wanting to raise this topic for a while, but what made me do it was receiving a request for information on Twitter by a local government person.

I don’t mind it when this happens. In fact it’s rather nice, as it means people remember who I am, and I get a chance to be helpful. As the owner of a small business, I get that this sort of thing can be a useful marketing tool.

But I do think to myself that there really ought to be a place where good practice, case studies, stories, examples, discussions and helpful chat can take place.

Surely that should be the Knowledge Hub? But as I mention, it isn’t: hardly anyone is on there and people are using tools like Twitter to try and track down the information they need.

So what’s the answer? Given the investment so far, and the organisational backing of the Knowledge Hub, that platform ought to be the future of knowledge sharing and collaboration in the sector.

I’m sure there are a few tweaks on the technology, user interface and community engagement side that could push things forward massively on there, before the goodwill earned by the previous system is used up.

The other option is for something else to emerge to take its place. With a little time and energy, I’ve no doubt someone – maybe even me – could put the tech in place to make it happen. But the time and resources needed to engage an entire sector are huge – and if the LGA are struggling I dread to think what sort of a hash someone like me would make of it.

What are your views? Do you use the Knowledge Hub? How does it compare to the CoPs? Where do you go for your innovation knowledge, stories and chat?

Where do we go next?

Update on the Knowledge Hub

Knowledge Hub

I spent an enjoyable afternoon at the advisory group for the Knowledge Hub (KHub) last Tuesday (sorry for the delay in writing this up…). Steve Dale chaired the day which featured a number of updates about the project, in terms of procurement and project management; technology platform and supplier; and communications and engagement.

Remember – the Knowledge Hub is the next generation of the Communities of Practice. Think of it as CoPs with an open API, plus some extra functionality.

The Knowledge Hub is going to be built by an outfit called PFIKS – who I must admit I had never heard of before. Their approach is heavily open source based and apparently they have about 80% of the Knowledge Hub requirements already working within their platform.

I’ve come away with a load of thoughts about this, most of which I have managed to summarise below.

1. Open platform

One of the strongest improvements that the Knowledge Hub will bring as compared to the current Communities of Practice platform is the fact that is will be open. This means that developers will be able to make use of APIs to use Knowledge Hub content and data to power other services and sites.

One compelling example is that of intranets – a suggestion was made that it would be possible to embed Knowledge Hub content in a council intranet – without the user knowing where the information came from originally. Later in this post I’ll talk about the engagement challenges on this project, but perhaps creative use of the API will enable some of these issues to be sidestepped.

Another aspect of this is the Knowledge Hub app store. I’m not quite sure whether this will be available within the first release, but it should come along pretty soon afterwards – it’s something Steve Dale seems pretty excited about. Developers will be able to create apps which make use of content and data stored within the Knowledge Hub to do cool stuff. I’m guessing it will be a two way thing, so content etc externally stored can be pulled into the Knowledge Hub and mashed up with other content.

It’s certainly something for Learning Pool, and I guess other suppliers to local gov, to consider – how can our tools and content interact with the Knowledge Hub?

2. Open source

The open source approach is to integrate various components into a stable, cohesive platform. This appears to be based on the Liferay publishing platform, with others bits added in to provide extra functionality – such as DimDim, for example, for online meetings and webinars; and Flowplayer for embedding video.

On the backend, the open source technology being used includes the Apache Solr search platform which is then extended with Nutch; and Carrot2, which clusters collections of documents – such as the results of a search query – into thematic categories. I think it is fair to say that the search bit of the KHub should be awesome.

What is also cool is that PFIKS publish their code to integrate all this stuff as open source as well – so not only are they using open source, they are also contributing back into the community. This is good.

Open Source, as I have written earlier, is not as simple a thing to understand as it might first appear. There are numerous complications around licensing and business models that have to be considered before a project commences. It certainly isn’t the case that by using open source tools that you can just rely on the community to do stuff for you for free – which seems a common misunderstanding.

Still, from the early exchanges, it appears that PFIKS get open source and are taking an active involvement in the developer communities that contribute to their platform. Hopefully the Knowledge Hub will end up as being a great example of collaboration between government, a supplier, and the open source community.

3. Data

One of the original purposes of the Knowledge Hub was that it would be a tool to help local authorities share their data. This was a couple of years ago, when Steve first started talking about the project, when data.gov.uk didn’t exist and the thought of publishing all purchases over £500 would have been anathema.

It would appear that the data side of things is taking a bit of a back seat at the moment, with the revamp of the communities taking centre stage. My understanding up until this point was that the Knowledge Hub would act as a repository for local government data to be stored and published. It would appear from some of the responses at the meeting that isn’t going to be the case now.

This is, in many ways, probably a good thing, as authorities like Lincoln, Warwickshire and Lichfield (amongst others) are proving that publishing data isn’t actually that hard.

However, all those authorities are those with really talented, and data-savvy people working on their web and ICT stuff. Are all councils that lucky? Perhaps not.

Hadley Beeman’s proposed project seems to be one that pretty much does what I thought the Knowledge Hub might do, and so again, maybe a good reason for the KHub not to do it.

When a question was asked about data hosting on KHub, the response was that it could be possible on a time-limited basis. In other words (I think), you could upload some data, mash it up with something else on the KHub, then pull it out again. Does that make sense? I thought it did, but now I have typed it up it seems kind of stupid. I must have got it wrong.

4. Engagement

You could count the number of people who actually came from real local authorities on one hand at the meeting, which for an advisory group is slightly worrying – not least because this was the big ‘reveal’ when we found out what the solution was going to be and who the supplier was. Actually – maybe that’s not of huge interest to the sector?

Anyway, it’s fair to say that there hasn’t been a huge level of interest from the user side of things throughout this project. Again, maybe that’s fair enough – perhaps in this age of austerity, folk at the coal face need to be concentrating on less abstract things. But now the KHub is becoming a reality I think it will become increasingly important to get people from the sector involved in what is going on to ensure it meets their needs and suits the way they work. By the sound of the work around the ‘knowledge ecology’ that Ingrid is working on, plenty of effort is going to be put in this direction.

It will also be vital for the Knowledge Hub to have some high quality content to attract people into the site when it first launches, to encourage engagement across the sector.

For all the talk of open APIs and the Knowledge Hub being a platform as much as a website, it still figures that for it to work, people need to actually take a look at it now and again. To drag eyeballs in, there needs to be some great content sat there waiting for people to find and be delighted by.

Much of this could be achieved by the transfer of the vast majority of the existing content on the Communities of Practice. There’s an absolute tonne of great content on there, and because of the way the CoPs are designed, quite a lot of it is locked away in communities that a lot of people don’t have access to. By transferring all the content across and making it more findable, the whole platform will be refreshed.

5. Fragmentation

The issue of fragmentation occurred to me as the day went on, and in many ways it touches on all of the points above. For while the Knowledge Hub both pulls in content from elsewhere and makes its own content available for other sites, there are still going to be outposts here and there which just don’t talk a language the KHub understands or indeed any language at all.

It’ll be great for dorks like me to automatically ping my stuff into Knowledge Hub, whether posts from this blog, or my Delicious bookmarks, shared Google Reader items, or videos I like. But those sites which publish stuff without

One striking example of this are the Knowledge Forums on the LG Improvement and Development website, which have continued despite the existence of the functionally richer Communities of Practice. My instinct would always to have been to close these forums and port them to the CoPs to both reduce the fragmentation of content and the confusion to potential users.

What about the content and resources on the rest of the LG Improvement and Development website – will that continue to exist outside of the rest of the platform, or will it be brought inside the KHub?

There are plenty of other examples of good content existing in formats which can’t easily be resused in the KHub, and for it to be the window on local government improvement, it’s going to need to drag this stuff in. Maybe a technology like ScraperWiki could help?

Social media resources for Local Government

A flurry of activity around social media this week from our chums at the Improvement and Development Agency.

Local by Social

The first thing is Local by Social, a rewriting of the excellent Social by Social by Andy Gibson. As the IDeA website states:

Social media is changing the world in which we work, socialise and govern. From Twitter to eBay, Facebook to YouTube, new tools are emerging every year that place the connecting power of the internet in the hands of every one of us.

In this context, the expectations on councils to engage, work openly, be accountable and move more quickly on issues are growing. Meanwhile, councils are facing the biggest cuts in spending in the post-war period and are being asked to do more with less just as demands from local people are rising. Higher expectations combined with drastically fewer resources make the imperative to innovate critical. A new set of tools is needed to meet this challenge.

This document outlines how local authorities can use social media to achieve more for less. It also highlights the risk to councils if they ignore the technological advances of social media and the people using them.

Download the guide here (PDF warning).

Backing up this work is a set of three case studies from local authorities, which have been published on Work Together – a prototype social site for the sharing of good practice in local government, focused on partnership working.

The case studies are:

Do visit the site, read or download the case studies, and make sure you leave your thoughts, or ask questions, in the comments!

Massive props to Ingrid Koehler for driving this agenda forward with IDeA; Steve Dale, who is managing the development of the Communities of Practice and the new Knowledge Hub (more on that soon); and Romilly Rogers, who looks after Work Together.

Building local government 2.0

The Knowledge Hub is a terrifically ambitious project being run by IDeA, in partnership with CLG, to bring knowledge and information sharing to the local government sector. A mixture of technology and capacity building, the aim is to alter the culture of local government, to change the way people in councils think about how success is measured, and how innovations and improvement can be rolled out across the entire sector.

Learning Pool are keen to play as big a role in this process as possible: after all, we have the background in local government, we have collaboration in our bone marrow, and we also have a pretty good idea about what works, technology-wise. So when the opportunity came up to bid for a project to develop a prototype which will inform the development of the Knowledge Hub, we pulled out all the stops to make sure we got it.

And get it we did (subject to the usual cooling off periods and boring contract stuff, of course).

The Partnerships and Places Library is an online resource of case studies from local authorities and local partnerships. It’s chock-full of useful content, but isn’t terribly interactive and probably isn’t the most engaging collection of content on the web.

Learning Pool will produce for the IDeA a fully interactive community, where content sharing, conversation and use of rich media will be encouraged and supported. Our concept for the site was called WorkTogether in recognition of the collaborative, silo-busting nature of the project.

We’re also keen to get the detail right on this project, and support open information and data sharing where we can. The new site will produce RSS a-plenty and will integrate with services like Calais to produce really useful semantic metadata. Everything will be built on open source technology, and where bespoke development is needed, that too will be released to the community.

Updates on development will be posted on the Learning Pool blog. We’re on a pretty tight schedule, so you all should be able to see some results before too long. If anyone is keen to be in on the user testing, leave us a comment here and we’ll do our best to involve you.

We’re delighted, because we see this as the first step in an exciting journey for Learning Pool. We’re going to be delivering a really innovative online project, and will be a part of the wider Knowledge Hub process. But this is also the start for us becoming local government’s trusted advisor and partner when it comes to developing social media, web 2.0 – or whatever you like to call it – strategies and products.

If your council is considering taking its first tentative steps into this new media world, get in touch with us – drop me a line on 07525 209589 or email me on dave@learningpool.com. I’d love to come and talk to you about this stuff, and see where Learning Pool can help.

Update: if you want to keep an eye on this project’s development on Twitter, follow @worktogetheruk!

Cross posted from the Learning Pool blog.