Discussion forums have been around in one form or another for decades. In fact, I recall participating in online discussion forums when I was a kid back in the 1980s. Of course, back then, the forums were hosted on BBSs, and today they are built into websites. The other major difference is that whereas discussion forums in the past tended to focus purely on the social aspects of being online, today's forums can offer tremendous benefits to the organizations that create them.
One of the best public examples of an organization's use of discussion forums that I have seen is from a company called PC Aviator. PC Aviator creates photo-quality scenery extensions for Microsoft Flight Simulator X. The company's discussion forums are set up to benefit both customers and the organization itself.
Customers are drawn to the discussion forum because it allows them to post screenshots that they have captured using PC Aviator's Mega Scenery products. They can also discuss technical issues they may be having and talk with other flight simulator enthusiasts about anything related to virtual aviation.
Keep in mind that PC Aviator also benefits from the discussion forums because customers use them to talk about what they would like to see in future releases of Mega Scenery products. This provides PC Aviator with extremely valuable, unbiased customer feedback.
Another example of a way that discussion boards are being used in an enterprise environment involves a charitable organization that I volunteer for on the side. Unfortunately, I can't tell you the name of this particular organization because of a confidentiality agreement that I have with them, but I will tell you that this particular organization would not be able to function nearly as effectively if it were not for its online forums.
The charity's forums are set up in a unique way that benefits both the volunteers and those who are seeking assistance from them. If someone needs assistance from the organization, or if they simply want to learn more about the various issues that the organization is set up to help with, all they have to do is create an account for themselves on the discussion forum. Once this account has been established, the user can read various informative articles or communicate with other site visitors or staff members through message posts.
The organization makes it easy for visitors to the site to differentiate between other visitors and staff members and volunteers because of the way that user accounts are named. Staff members and volunteers are set up with user names that start with the organization's name, an underscore, the state that the person resides in, another underscore, and the person's name. For example, my username is similar to Organization_SC_Brien. Since the site is configured to prevent casual visitors from using this naming convention, it makes it easy for visitors to the site to know when they are communicating with staff members or trained volunteers.
Another reason why the forum is particularly effective for the organization is that there are lots of areas that are only accessible to staff members and volunteers. For example, there are discussion threads related to each case that the organization handles. These case records are accessible to all of the staff members and to some of the volunteers. Because the information is posted on a private discussion thread, staff members and volunteers are free to use this area to discuss individual cases.
Staff members and volunteers can also access all of the various forms used by the organization directly through the members-only area of the forum. That way, if someone contacts the organization needing assistance, a volunteer can download the interview form and begin asking the person the necessary questions to get the ball rolling. The volunteer would then create a new folder in the forum's case area, and a staff member would have all of the information needed to get started with creating the new case.
These are just two examples of how discussion forums leverage the power of social networking in enterprise environments. The best part is that it is usually relatively inexpensive to add a discussion forum to an existing website. A number of commercial discussion boards can be licensed and integrated into an existing site.
About the author
Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server and IIS. Brien has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. As a freelance technical writer, he has written for Microsoft, CNET, ZDNet, TechTarget, MSD2D, Relevant Technologies and other technology companies. You can visit Brien's personal website at www.brienposey.com.
This was first published in November 2008