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IMS5023 : Information Enterprise Management and Marketing


WEEK 2, SEMESTER 1, 2005

Virtual Communities

 

Introduction

The lecture theme of Week 2 is Virtual Communities (also called Virtual Information Communities and Virtual Knowledge Communities, and closely related to Communities of Interest and Communities of Practice). We opened up the theme of virtual communities in the first lecture, and the work for Tutorial 1 calls on you to think quite hard about the idea.

To-day we drill deeper and examine concepts associated with virtual communities, virtual knowledge teams and their links with information enterprise. This week we focus especially on government websites that establish a framework for the development of information and communications technology and for information enterprise within Victoria and Australia.

References

Rheingold, Howard (1995) The virtual community: finding connection in a computeried world. London: Minerva. Online version at: <http://www.rheingold.com/vc/book/>

Fisher, Kimball & Fisher, Mareen Duncan (1998) The distributed mind: Achieving high performance through the collective intelligence of knowledge work teams. New York: AMACOM.

Putnam, Robert (2000) Bowling Alone: the collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Skyrme, David J. (1999) Knowledge networking: Creating the collaborative enterprise. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Castells, Manuel (2002) The Internet galaxy: reflections on the Internet, business and society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wenger, Etienne; McDermott, Richard and Snyder (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge, Harvard Business School Press.
 

Conceptualising virtual community

In its traditional meaning, community is 'a social group of any size whose members live in one area, share government, and often share a common background.' (Macquarie Dictionary). Communities are vital to human functioning. They provide a sense of identity, support and belonging.

A classic definition of virtual information/ knowledge community, based on the early work of Rheingold (1995) would be as follows:

'except instead of being rooted in a physical place, it is a locality in cyberspace. It is a community of shared interest. Such communities emerged in the 1980s based around bulletin board systems. Today they exist on the Internet in newsgroups, email discussion lists and conferences and on company intranets and groupware systems.' (Skyrme 1999, p.114). Often even a simple 'notice board' style of website can provide the basis of a virtual community.
Dimensions of virtualisation include: Castells (2002) sought to update our conception of virtual community. His excellent Chapter 4 in The Internet Galaxy is entitled 'Virtual Communities or Network Society'. Core to his discussion is Wellman's definition of community, quoted on page 127:
Communities are networks of inter-personal ties that provide sociability, support, information, a sense of belonging and a social identity.
Castells finds much support for this conceptualisation in the research literature, both theoretical and empirical.   He seeks to go beyond the 'ideological discussion between those nostaligic for the old, spatially bounded community and the enthusiastic supporters of Internet-enabled communities of choice' (p. 125), which echoes earlier arguments about the relative virtues and problems of village and city life.

He argues that the Internet is best characterised as the 'the material support for networked individualism', in which people develop strong or weak ties with others, and in this way build degrees of community appropriate to their needs. It aligns with Wenger et al (2002) in their conceptualisation of communities of practice. It is also arguable consistent with David Green's (2004) account, in The Serendipty Machine, Chapter 3, of simplifying complex tasks through breaking them down into simpler tasks. People simplify the management of their complex individual lives through building links of varying strength and duration with multiple virtual communities, each of which supports a part of their needs.

Of course, not everyone agrees that online world provides a beneficial environment for the development of 'community' in a meaningfull sense. See Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone (2000) for an alternate point of view.

Types of virtual information/ knowledge community

Virtual information/ knowledge communities vary greatly in nature, size and mode of operation.

Membership may be open (to anyone who shares a common interest), or closed (by invitation or subscription only). Some operate as informal chat groups, with free flowing discussion, questions and answers; others are more tightly controlled, with a moderator vetting contributions before they are posted.

Many virtual information communities are quite transitory in nature, eg of a few weeks' duration. Others are more stable and ongoing.

There are many thousands of such communities in cyberspace where people can 'connect' with others who share their interest - however obscure that interest may be. The focus may be a local or regional community (eg rural Victorian farmers); a hobby (eg model trains, soccer); a life problem (eg premature birth, cancer, depression); a life stage (eg adolescence, older adults); a social, political or environmental concern (eg unemployment, victims of crime, global warming); a specialist field; a technology; and so on. The long-recognised 'invisible college' of researchers and academics within particular disciplines are virtual information communities. More business examples of virtual information communities are emerging, eg customer and business focused groups (eg Frequent Flyer sites). Virtual information communities can operate within one organisation - especially a large organisation or global company.

Virtual information/ knowledge communities and information enterprise

A particular focus of this subject is how information professionals can identify and exploit opportunities for information innovation within virtual information/ knowledge communities. Information and information technology markets are increasingly complex, dynamic and volatile. To survive - and to thrive - in these markets, information professionals must be skilled in identifying information needs and opportunities, and in creating and developing new information products or services in response.

Examples of virtual information products and services:

As we saw last week, seizing information opportunities may involve participation in the development of new information communities.

The other side of the coin is that information professionals also need to be responsive to declining interest within an information/ knowledge community, and know when to wind back or discontinue a current information product/ service that has outlived its usefulness.

Virtual information communities and knowledge networking

A key element of 'value adding' in successful information innovations comes from effective 'knowledge networking' within virtual information communities.

Knowledge networking comprises two dimensions:

While the technological infrastructure is a necessary pre-requisite for human networking in virtual communities, it remains the tool - the human element is the vital spark in innovation.

Sociograms (or sociometric diagrams) are one means of representing knowledge/ information networks diagrammatically. Each person is recorded as a numbered node, and communication links are shown with connecting arrowed lines.

Example of a Knowledge/ Information Network Diagram


Collaborative technologies and virtual information communities

Collaborative technologies facilitate knowledge networking and underpin the development of virtual information communities.

Skyrme (1999, p.85) provides a useful classification of these collaborative technologies according to the dimensions of space and time.

 
 

Virtual information/ knowledge communities and 'virtual knowledge teams'

A virtual information/ knowledge community (in contrast to formal organisational or work-based structures) is self-selecting, self-organising, focused on information and knowledge sharing. Virtual information/ knowledge communities are sometimes differentiated into two broad types:

Virtual information/ knowledge communities may involve from relatively few to several hundred participants. Within a larger community, smaller teams will emerge with a more specific or distinct focus, and will establish links to other teams and to the parent community. Such virtual knowledge teams are significant structures for information innovation.

Virtual knowledge teams (VKTs) also are found within large/ global corporations, where project teams comprising representatives from different countries, divisions, etc collaborate on a project within virtual space. These teams are becoming increasingly common for new product development, where there is a need for input from experts from different countries, divisions, functions, professions, etc.

When virtual knowledge teams work well, they can deliver extraordinary results. But they must overcome the challenges associated with the lack of a common time, place, work culture and direction. (Fisher& Fisher 1998, p. 136)
Fisher & Fisher highlight 'multiplexing' as a major problem for VKTs. This is where team members are working on multiple projects at the same time, and have divided loyalties, conflicts within their own personal time allocations and priority setting.

Fisher & Fisher sum up the major challenge facing a VKT as 'How can we create a distributed mind?' This involves a clear and precise differentiation of individual roles and responsibilities from the outset, and the establishment of effective integration mechanisms that focus the team on a common cause. The authors outline four key strategies for VKT integration, under the headings: structure, leadership, shared values and rewarded goals. Key questions the VKT needs to address for these four areas are summarised in the Table below (Adapted from Fisher & Fisher pp. 146-151).
 


INTEGRATION STRATEGY
KEY QUESTIONS FOR THE VKT TO ADDRESS
Structure What is the purpose of this team? 
Who are our customers? Who are our partners, suppliers and other stakeholders?
How will the VKT be organised? 
How will we manage our work? 
What are our core work processes?
Who will be responsible for what? 
What will we call ourselves? 
When will we meet? How will we meet? 
How will we communicate between meetings?
Leadership What will the team leader do? 
What will the team members do? 
Who is accountable for our success? 
Who will manage what? 
Who will make what decisions? 
Who will solve what problems? 
What decisions will we not be able to make? 
Where do we go for help? 
Who will solve intractable disagreements?
Shared values What do we value as a team? 
How will we operate together? 
How will we run meetings? 
How will we make decisions? 
How will we solve technical problems? 
How will we solve people problems? 
What process will we use to prioritise our work on this team and other teams?
Rewarded goals What do we need to do to be successful? 
What are our key goals? 
How will we measure our goals/ track our progress? 
What is our reward system? 
What do our customers need from us? 
What are our priorities? 
What will we do if we get off track? 
How will we reward goal accomplishment?

Fisher & Fisher (pp. 151-152) cite research that showed that a willingness to share information and virtual collocation appear to be critical factors in VKT effectiveness. (Virtual collocation refers to the use of networks and communication links to simulate physical collocation in one office). As all teams, VKTs needs to attend to the social and psychological needs of team members, providing experiences that make each member feel 'connected' and valued as human beings within the team. The experience of Hewlett Packard (pp. 153-154) points to the crucial importance of initial 'start-up' experiences in a team's success. Hewlett Packard has found 'that an effective face-to-face start-up can accelerate the effectiveness of the team' and is well worth the investment in terms of travel and accommodation costs. An initial face-to-face meeting lets team members get to know each other, reach agreement on their purpose and direction, develop guidelines for how they will work together, and put together a schedule for interactions. It is a personalising touch that facilitates later electronic communications and sustains motivation for the team task.

Creating a climate for information enterprise

Governments, state and national, and transnational regulatory bodies play a crucial role in setting policy and regulatory frameworks that encourage - or, on the other hand, that constrain - information enterprise. Skyrme (1999, pp.266-267) eloquently summarises this issue as follows:

The prosperity of individuals, enterprises and whole nations in the knowledge economy, depends on creating conditions in which knowledge-based enterprises and entrepreneurial individuals can thrive. Too frequently, the focus of policy-makers is on regulation and legislation. . . .

There are several prerequisites for creating the right conditions:

The policy maker's challenge is to develop an overall enhancing framework but not to 'enmesh themselves too closely with detailed regulation that stifles ground-level entrepreneurial activities.' (Skyrme 1999, p. 267)

Australian and Victorian Government frameworks for Information Enterprise and for developing virtual information communities: Main source documents for study this week

We must be mindful that the world of information communities is constantly changing. While we can design the framework of subjects such as these because of what we know of broad principles and trends, we cannot always predict what may be the best information sources to consult very far in advance. Since we want you to be graduates whose knowledge is as current and relevant as possible, we must be constantly scanning for the best sources, as well as monitoring your own foci of interest through your contributions to the listserver. This condition of constant change is one of the reasons why the Subjects are best studied by the quickly up-dateable media of on-campus lectures and Web text plus digital audio.

Our special focus this week is on our state and national government's frameworks for the development of information and communications technologies (ICTs), information enterprise and virtual information communities. We will be revisiting these important sites in subsequent weeks. At this stage, we would like you to browse through the sites listed, and to focus in particular on the major government policy documents. [Most documents are available for downloading in PDF format from these sites. You will need to have Acrobat Reader installed on your computer to read the files. The Acrobat Reader is available as a free download from Adobe. It is essential to have Acrobat Reader installed on your computer as many important publications are delivered electronically in this format.]

At the national level, the Federal government department with responsibility for this area is the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA): http://www.dcita.gov.au/

Senator Helen Coonan MP is the Federal Minister with responsibility for this area.

Within DCITA there are three divisions that are of particular interest to us in this unit, those for: Information Economy; Information and Communications Technology; and Broadcasting and Online Regulation. O

Of these, we will primarily be concerned with the activity of the Information Economy Division. Browse some of the key publications highlighted at this site, eg Australia's Strategic Framework for the Information Economy 2004 - 2006, or An Australian Guide to Doing Business Online.

A related site is that of AGIMO (Australian Government Information Management Office), which deals with issues faced by the Government in developing and managing its own electronic services. Browse the report Future Challenges For e-Government for an example of its work.

Victoria

Victoria has long been in the forefront of developments in the information industry/ ICT. Victoria's pioneering Victoria 21 strategy (initiated in 1996) sought to position the state as advantageously as possible for the information age. The Kennett government published a new vision/ policy paper Global Victoria: Victorian Government Information Technology and Multimedia Policy just a few months before the Liberal government lost office. Arguably, in 2004, Victoria may be losing its lead position to Queensland.

The Victorian Labor government under Steve Bracks is sustaining the emphasis on information enterprise of the previous government, although with a stronger emphasis on information democratisation ('sharing the benefits of these technologies across the entire Victorian community'). In November 1999 the Labor policy document Connecting Victoria: The Victorian Government's Strategy for Information and Communication Technologies was published. [This is a document you should familiarise yourself with. You can download it from the website]. A summary of the main areas covered in this strategy is provided in the extract below:


MULTIMEDIA VICTORIA

The Department of State and Regional Development is the government department responsible for ICT development within Victoria. The agency that administers State policies on ICT and multimedia is Multimedia Victoria (MMV). You have already visited the MC2 part of the MMV site - now explore the rest of the site at: http://www.mmv.vic.gov.au/
Browse the contents of the MMV website. Keep your eye on this site, as further policy documents on this area are mooted.

VICNET

The other Victorian website we would like you to browse this week is Vicnet (established 1995). Vicnet was the cornerstone public initiative for the building of information communities in Victoria.

http://www.vicnet.net.au/

Vicnet is an excellent example of virtual information communities in action. Scan the Vicnet Directory and it's A-Z index of sites to see the types of organisations and groups involved. This is a site we will be coming back to in later weeks.

 

Information communities and 'critical mass'

In detective stories we are often told that the key ingredients of a perfect crime are motive and opportunity. The same is true of most actions in life. Government initiatives in Victoria have set out to ensure that all Victorians have both the motivation and the opportunity to participate in online information communities. The Global Victoria document aimed to give Victorians 'compelling reasons to participate' in the information economy, through a strategic framework that outlined initiatives related to:

Similar developments are being continued by the new Labor Government in Victoria under Connecting Victoria. All the above are aspects of 'virtual information communities' All require appropriate management and marketing approaches. All offer scope for what we have called 'information enterprise'.

The key to providing motive and opportunity for people to participate in information communities, whether for daily living, business, government, are appropriate regulatory arrangements, certainly but more crucially critical mass of participation. To quote from Global Victoria, building a critical mass of participants: '... goes beyond simply creating awareness. It involves giving people and business compelling reasons to participate'.

As the global information economy grows, the operation of the market would eventually deliver a critical mass of participants in Victoria.

However, there are strong public policy reasons for the government to drive the development of critical mass faster than would be achieved by normal market activity.

Many people do not use the Internet because the content available does not give them a compelling reason to do so. Local developers of content and applications find there are not enough users to build a business case to develop their products and services. In turn low levels of content and demand mean little pressure is put on carriers to decrease prices. There is then a reinforcing pattern of low levels of content, low levels of use, and high costs of infrastructure. Government policies that promote Internet use are based on a belief that a dramatic increase in usage to achieve critical mass can help to change this pattern.

The World Summit on the Information Economy (WSIS)

The WSIS is an international process under the auspices of the United Nations to explore and plan how information and communication technologies can best be applied to improving the lives of people in all countries. The Centre for Community Networking Research in the Faculty of IT at Monash, in conjunction with a similar team from the University of Central Queensland, was appointed by NOIE to convene a national consultation in Australia, and draw up a submission to WSIS on behalf of Australian civil society.

The statement was submitted to the first Summit meeting in Geneva, December 2004 can be read on the WSIS page of the CCNR website http://www.ccnr.net/wsis/  The main WSIS site at http://www.itu.int/wsis/ can also be accessed via the CCNR site, or directly. Both sites offer many other links relevant to the WSIS initiative.
 

Preparation for Tutorial 2

Study the Monash CCNR Website, particularly the Projects page at http://www.ccnr.net/projects.htm  Select just two projects that the CCNR has completed or is currently undertaking.  Make notes on the projects and bring your notes to the Tutorial. Also print out and bring to the tutorial a copy of the Information Communities Model (introduced in Week 1), and Wellman's definition of community from the lecture notes above.

 



 
Tom Denison