Conversation is a topic I often present about. On those occasions I am frequently asked, “Do you consider on-line discussion forums conversation?” I usually fumble and hedge my answer. But now, thanks to a study done by Yongsuk Kim, when he was a doctoral student at the University of Texas, I have at least a partial answer. Before I get to Kim’s study let me explain both my experience and my concerns about on-line forums that cause me to hedge my answer to that frequently asked question.
First, I fully support on-line forums. I have had the opportunity to set up on-line forums in many organizations; I co-authored a book about CompanyCommand which is one of the best on-line forums around; and I encourage organizations to make use of on-line forums every chance I get. In my opinion on-line forums are the gold standard of knowledge sharing.
My concerns are related to what I observe happening in many on-line discussion forums. I observe that a member asks a question and then various other members provide an answer. But there is little back and forth among the members. Rather, each responder simply makes a declarative statement that represents his or her own position. Responders may not have even read others’ answers before stating their own position.
Of course, back and forth exchanges are not necessary if the question is just asking for factual information, for example, “How much pressure should valve 25 hold?” A clear response from a knowledgeable peer is all that is needed. But too often I observe the ask/answer format occurring even when the asker is seeking the lessons of experience from other members. And I am hard pressed to call those exchanges a conversation.
I recognize there are many ways to define the term “conversation.” The way I am using it here is: “One or more persons actively working to understand the meaning another is trying to convey.” There is tremendous value gained, both in terms of learning and development, from an exchange that meets that definition. Through conversation with knowledgeable peers, a member is able to gain a different perspective on an issue or a broader way to think about a problem. It is possible to develop one’s judgment through such conversation.
Johnson and Johnson, researchers at the University of Minnesota, who study collaboration, say that the synthesis of diverse perspectives comes from being able to hold both one’s own and another’s perspective in mind at the same time. Holding two perspectives in mind necessarily means there has been enough conversation for each person to thoroughly understand the perspective of the other - not only the conclusions, but to fully comprehend the thinking behind those conclusions. And, having both perspectives in mind, they are able to then hold an intelligent dialogue that explores different interpretations of the problem. And that exploration even has the potential to create new knowledge.
For an on-line exchange to meet my definition of a conversation, much more interaction between parties would have to occur than the ask/answer format that is typical of many on-line exchanges. For example some of the following actions would need to take place:
• The question asker would reply to an answer that he or she receives by,
o Asking for an example,
o Asking for the data that supports the responder’s conclusion,
o Inquiring why that member’s response is better than an earlier response,
o Challenging the answer,
o Or explaining why the answer made sense from the asker’s perspective.
• Responders would have similar interactions with each other by,
o Referencing what another member said,
o Elaborating on another member’s answer,
o Posing a question to another member,
o Suggesting conditions under which another member’s answer is accurate,
o Asking for clarification of another member’s response
In his study Yongsuk Kim referenced this type of interaction as “collective elaboration.”
Kim analyzed 190 discussion threads that involved 1,200 participants in ConocoPhillips’ Networks of Excellence. He surveyed the members who had posted the questions that started each discussion thread, asking them to rate their learning from high to low and to specify the performance that resulted from the answers they received.
Kim found two factors in the discussion threads that were correlated with both learning and performance for the askers:
1) how much collective elaboration occurred in the discussion thread
2) how diverse the responders were.
In terms of the second factor, research has shown that diverse groups are often more creative, innovative, and productive than homogenous groups. Based on this understanding, ConocoPhillips Network leaders frequently post questions to a number of networks rather keeping the question within a single network. And ConocoPhillips’ network structure has made it relatively simple for a network facilitator to post a question in related networks.
This following graph displays the relationships Kim found in his study.(click to enlarge)
As the chart on the left shows, Kim found the most learning occurs when responses have high levels of collective elaboration and when members of other networks join in the discussion. Interestingly, there is less learning when members of other networks provide answers but there is little or no collective elaboration. The same pattern occurs in terms of performance shown in the right hand chart, collective elaboration increases the value. Likewise diversity without discussion is less helpful.
I would add to Kim's findings a lesson I learned working with CompanyCommand; when the facilitator models collective elaboration by his or her own questions, others will follow suit. I would also note that since most organizations track metrics for their forums, e.g. number of questions, or the number of responses to a question, it would be useful to add a metric related the amount of collective elaboration that occurs in the forums.
I started with the question, “Are on-line discussion forums conversations?” My conclusions are that:
1. It is possible to have conversations in on-line forums.
2. But many on-line exchanges are not conversations, they are just declarations of each responder’s position
3. When conversations do occur in on-line forums the learning and performance results go up.
I have a great deal of interest in the topic of how to encourage greater collective elaboration in on-line discussion forums. I would be very interested in hearing from organizations that have found ways to increase conversation with their on-line forums.