Why we need forums

I created this write-up in November 2007, but now for the masses:


1. When Forums are Better than Email

Forums are a good mechanism for asking and answering questions, for several reasons:

Reason Forums Email
Searchability Questions and answers are in a single easily searchable place. Email is a lot more difficult to effectively search.
Preservation Forums preserve years of questions and answers. Emails are only around until you clean out your mail folders.
Availability Available to all developers. Private to each individual, so the answer that one person gets does not benefit others who may later have the same question.
Efficiency Once an expert answers a question he/she can say “search for the thread about yyy Expert must write up answer again
Updateability The answer to a question may change over time – either because a mistaken notion is corrected, or because things are different now than they were when the question was originally asked. With forums, searches will show such updated answers. You save the original answer, which may be out of date by the time you refer to it.
Accountability When an expert answers a question on a forum, it is informally reviewed by other forum participants. Another expert can post a correction, or even a non-expert can say, “Are you sure? I thought it was this other way because…” This feedback to the answerer may result in a “You’re right, I misspoke. It’s really this way…” Thus errors are corrected and the whole group learns. When someone gives an answer by email, he or she may have been thinking incorrectly about the issue, but there’s not a good way to tell.
Audience Forum participation is on a self-selection basis, and participants are able to check the forum at their convenience instead of being interrupted with an email. Those who join later are able to catch up on the history they missed by browsing older forum posts. It’s hard to send an email to just the right people. In addition to the initial choice of whom it’s appropriate to send communications to, when someone is added to a project later and communications are by email, they miss out on decisions communicated earlier.
Helping New Hires Forums provide a place where new hires can ask their questions in a way that benefits other new hires and contributes to the body of knowledge generally New hires’ questions may bog down their go-to expert.
Community When you participate in an active forum, you gain an appreciation for both those who take the effort to answer questions and those who ask good questions. These people are from different teams, sometimes different divisions. You’re growing together, and there’s a greater shared identity. This is not the case with email.

2. Forums vs. TWiki

TWiki and Forums both have their place, because they address two different needs. TWiki is a good medium when you want to write up a paper about a topic, but it is not good for quick questions and answers.

3. Forums vs. Training Classes and Documentation

Forums can help with knowledge transmission and frequently asked questions. Someone might ask, shouldn’t knowledge transmission be dealt with more officially using training classes, and shouldn’t frequently asked questions be dealt with by creating FAQs and other documentation? Yes! Let’s make use of training and documentation wherever it makes sense. In fact, browsing the forum postings may help us to create more helpful FAQs as we see the truly frequently asked questions, and needs for developer training as we see frequent areas of misunderstanding. This can help us concentrate our internal documentation and training efforts where most needed.

4. The Challenge of Forums

Forums do have an Achilles’ heel: there has to be some critical mass of people who believe in the forum concept – who make it their practice to take their questions to the forum and answer what questions they can on the forum. If this critical mass is not there, the forum will not be a valuable enough resource to draw others in. (It’s a combination of seeing others’ questions answered and seeing regular activity on the forum that helps others take the step of asking their first question on the forum.)

The immediate challenge I see for the adoption of forums is that we, as a body of developers [at my company], are not used to asking questions in a way that preserves the answers for ourselves and others – it’s not that we’re against it, but we take no thought for it. (Look at the near zero traffic Unit Test mailing list, for example.) It’s just not in our culture yet. There would need to be some sustained encouragement of the idea, maybe for 6 months, to get developers in the habit of contributing questions and answers to the forum, otherwise the forum(s) would be in danger of being simply ignored.

5. Conclusion

Even with training, documentation, and TWiki, some mechanism is needed for the day-to-day questions. For the reasons listed above, we need to find a way to move away from email and toward forums for these day-to-day questions — for the company’s sake as well as for our own development.

Notes

  1. We also ask in person. Though in-person questions do suffer from many of the weaknesses listed in section 1, asking in person is often important. An expert will often throw in other tidbits of wisdom along with the requested answer when someone is standing there, which they might not do to a written question, and there are other mentoring aspects of in person conversations that make it well worthwhile. Email has the most of the drawbacks of face-to-face communication with few of its benefits. I am not suggesting that we move away from face-to-face communication.

DanielMeyer – 28 Nov 2007

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