How NOT to implement a Discussion Forum

ForumHonestly, I hope this post is way out of date, in the sense that everyone knows how to start and manage a Discussion Board or Forum. But just in case, let me share my experiences as a warning!

Several years ago we implemented Blog/Forum functionality on the intranet. This was the first set of “democratic tools” available, long even before the terms “user-generated content” and “social media”  were glitters in a marketeer’s or communicator’s eye. From the start we had a few successful examples: there was a place where sales people could discuss competitor’s activities at their customers, we had one for questions and suggestions about the intranet, and we successfully “crowdsourced” our Mission Statement and Company Values.

You can imagine we were very thrilled to receive another request from the CEO’s desk, this time to help with collecting tips for cost reductions (and revenue increases) throughout the company. A global topic, of high relevance, and endorsed by the CEO; of course this was a wonderful opportunity to promote our functionality again. We worked with Communications to set it up in the desired form, trained them in managing and moderating, and created a nice place on the homepage to feature it.

The first few weeks saw lots of activities. People liked the topic and had many interesting ways to save money or to increase sales, whether it was by selecting cheaper flight routes when travelling, installing motion-activated office lighting to reduce energy costs, or preferring our customers’ restaurants for business and private dinners. There were also good discussions about other topics, like pros and cons of open source software. All in all, this forum was a great success!

But then…
First of all, there was no reaction from the CEO or anyone from Communications to the suggestions. Nobody was expecting exorbitant praise or prizes, but we had expected that some suggestions would be featured in news stories, promoted to the entire company as a good practice, or even made into new internal procedures. When we asked Communications if they needed a PMO Team Site for follow-up of the most promising suggestions, it turned out that any evaluation or follow-up of the suggestions was not part of the plan. When, after a few weeks, people started realizing nobody did anything with their suggestions, the enthusiasm appeared to decrease.

But the real Forum Killer was a remark from an employee in Europe who was losing his job as part of an outsourcing project. He questioned the motivation and cost effectiveness of outsourcing his role, and made a few vicious, but funny, remarks about the CEO. What no policy or corporate news item has ever achieved, happened now: the remark spread like wildfire and by the time our American colleagues came into the office, everyone in Europe had read it.
You would think this would be a good opportunity for the CEO to show compassion with the employee, and to explain the company strategy once more.
Even no reaction would have been understandable, since everyone understood that this employee wanted to vent his frustration at being made redundant, and that he overstepped the boundaries of responsible behaviour.
But nobody understood why the vicious remarks were removed from the comment (leaving some asterisks instead) without any further comments.

From that day, the Forum fell silent. Even a new discussion started by the CEO generated no more comments.

Are you in charge of, or advising someone with a Forum? Then these may be some suggestions:

  • Communicate a clear and transparent process about the Forum. What is the purpose of the Forum? What are you going to do with the generated content? How is the content being moderated? How fast can people expect a reaction (if relevant)?
    If you are not going to take action, or want to leave any actions to individuals, make it clear as well!
  • If you want to use the discussion as input for a programme, make sure you publish about it regularly. Keep the ideas coming by showing that they can make a difference.
  • See all remarks as opportunities for dialogue. I have seen Forums at other companies where people expressed their concerns for their jobs, and where management reacted promptly with a compassionate message showing they fully understood the problems of job insecurity.
  • Inform people about any appropriate behavioural guidelines, e.g. your Employee Guidelines, Business Practices or Internal Social Media Policy. Also, make it known how you will treat inappropriate comments. (Please note that most in-company Forums, which are generally not anonymous, rarely have inappropriate remarks)
  • Read more about moderating forums and other online media by Alex Manchester of StepTwoDesigns.
Recreation of the Forum, with the censored remarks.

10 thoughts on “How NOT to implement a Discussion Forum

  1. Pingback: Intranet Lounge
  2. Soozi Hadj Lazib March 7, 2012 / 1:57 pm

    Hi Ellen

    This is a really good example of something which takes off because staff think they’re being listened to, and then dies a death when they realise it’s all just show. I’m planning a blog post of my own about Discussion Boards, so I’ll definitely be linking to this well written and clear post of yours!

    Thanks, Soozi

    • Ellen van Aken March 7, 2012 / 2:06 pm

      Hi Soozi, Thank you for your comments. Please would you be so kind to let me know when you have posted; I would like to read it.
      Best regards,

  3. worldwideintranetchallenge April 11, 2012 / 5:04 am

    Nice article with some good lessons. It’s a good reminder that the success (or otherwise) of internal discussion forums is 95% about culture, processes & change management and 5% about the technology.

    • Ellen van Aken April 11, 2012 / 8:17 am

      Hi Andrew, Thank you for your comments! I would say that the success of almost ANYTHING related to intranets is mainly due to people and not technology. 🙂

  4. Andrew Gilleran (@AGilleran) April 16, 2012 / 11:41 pm

    Good article Ellen, discussion forums are all about people, not the company and not the technology. We’re inclined to forget that!

    • Ellen van Aken April 24, 2012 / 11:38 am

      Thank you Andrew. Sounds like a new post…it is the process, not the platform! 🙂

  5. Meri May 12, 2014 / 12:29 pm

    My relatives every time say that I am killing my time here at web, but I know I am getting know-how every day by reading
    such good articles or reviews.

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