Creative Commons

Orienteering Through the Landscape of Community Tools

According to Wikipedia, Orienteering is a sport that requires navigational skills using a map and compass to navigate to different spots in diverse and usually unfamiliar terrain. Most technologists would agree that choosing the right technology for a virtual community can feel like a similar experience.

Building A Framework for Choosing Community Technology

Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith, authors of Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities, identified 9 orientations that can be useful for choosing technology from the perspective of the community.

The 9 orientations include:

9 OrientationsOrientation 1 – Meetings

Many communities meet regularly and members engage in shared activities. All phases of meetings can use technology support – from scheduling meetings and preparation of agendas before the meeting, to sending announcements, to the interactions during the meeting, to the archiving and distribution of records after the meeting takes place.

Orientation 2 – Open-ended Conversations

Some communities rarely, or ever, meet in person; instead they maintain ongoing conversations, which hold the community together.  Tools that allow parallel conversations are more difficult to use because each topic develops its own context, and contributions need to be made in the right place.

Blogs and wikis are useful for conversations, individual and group, and their commenting features allow debate and discussion around a particular topic. RSS feeds, categories, and tags can be utilized for updates on the go and keyword categorizing and searching. Combining discussion tools with Web 2.0 applications can help make them useful for group processes and knowledge retention.

Orientation 3 – Projects

Communities are often formed in order to develop their practice, and projects are often the work product of a community. Projects usually involve a subgroup within the community, and many can be occurring at the same time.  Project groups often need separate spaces to work together independently from the larger community. Collaboration requirements may include common areas to work on shared artifacts, coordinate activities, and project-management tools to track interdependent tasks. Tools that invite participation around published documents can be used to update and involve the rest of the community.

Orientation 4 – Content

Some communities are primarily interested in creating, sharing, and providing access to documents, tools, and other content. This type of orientation suggests the need for technology that focuses on content management: uploading, organizing, combining, search, application of taxonomies and editorial functions.

The web offers opportunities for community members to actively engage with documents in a less structured, distributed way, whether in the collective production of documents through tools like wikis or collectively developing structures for organizing resources through links, tagging, and comments.

Orientation 5 – Access to Expertise

Some communities create value by providing focused and timely access to expertise in the community’s domain, whether internally or externally.  A community may serve a larger organization or network as a “center of excellence” focusing on an identified expertise or it can serve more informally as a connection point to access the knowledge of its members.

Email, phone and IM have served well in the past to access expertise, however more sophisticated application enabling quick and efficient access. Systems that can route request, build and access a repository of questions and answers, and keep track of rating of responses that various experts receive are now available in addition to contact management and social network analysis tools.

Orientation 6 – Relationships

Communities that focus on relationship building emphasize the interpersonal aspect of learning together. Communities with this orientation place a high value on knowing each other personally.

The web has recently seen an explosion in tools oriented toward building and visualizing relationships, particularly social networking for finding and starting relationships with people and analysis tools for representation of network connections. Finding the right mix of face-to-face interaction with the many tools that exist is both subtle and challenging.

Orientation 7 – Individual Participation

Learning together happens in the context of a group, but is realized in the experience of individuals. Members of the same community participate in different ways, have different purposes, engage with different frequencies and different levels of commitment, take on different roles, and use tools differently.

When technology becomes the members’ main window into their communities, their participation can be a highly individualized experience. Members need configuration options to manage their participation and attention across more than one community with a single set of tools.

Orientation 8 – Community Cultivation

Some communities thrive on the need to reflect on the effectiveness and health of the community to make things better, joined with a willingness to work on it. Tools such as the phone, email, and IM are still the basics for community cultivation, but, broadcasting tools can help keep people informed about community activities. Many tools available can track data; the challenge is often how to integrate information from different sources so that it is easy to act on.

Orientation 9 – Serving a Context

Some communities are not especially oriented to serving a context the members mostly want to get to know one another better and privacy and the ability to interact and share materials is far from the public gaze. The degree to which a community’s context is central to its identity creates specific technology-related challenges. Within an organization, single logins and compatibility with existing infrastructure is often a requirement.



Dr. Nancy Rubin is an experienced educator, trainer, and practitioner, with over 10 years of experience in the field of eLearning. Dr. Rubin works with Learning Objects, Inc., as an educational technology and social media strategist.


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