Discover Answers and Share Expertise with SharePoint Communities

Robin Miller is a program manager on the SharePoint Team and Reagan Templin is a Senior Technical Writer specializing in SharePoint.

When I first became a Program Manager (PM) at Microsoft I discovered that there isn’t much formal training for the position. It’s like an apprenticeship; you have to seek out other PMs and learn from their experience. So I joined several email distribution lists (DLs), including one just for PMs in the Office division.

First of all, that DL has been around much longer than me. There is probably some great advice sitting in a more senior PM’s inbox somewhere that I’ll never get to read. I only get to see what happened before I joined if someone repeats it for me. However, if my question had already been discussed before, then a lot of people would choose to ignore it since they are tired of seeing the same question come through repeatedly. That’s assuming I even had the guts to ask. Outlook is kind enough to remind me that my questions are about to clutter the inboxes of over one thousand people. That’s pretty intimidating, and I always debated whether my little questions were worth that many peoples’ time. I liked when other PMs asked questions that would also benefit me to know the answer to, but if the response went only to the original sender then I had no idea what the answer was or if there even was one. On top of that, conversations got fragmented because people didn’t always respond to the most recent reply in the thread. This group badly needed a better way to communicate. That’s where the new SharePoint communities come in.

A Community is a new site template in SharePoint. Communities provide gathering places where information is shared and people connect. Discussions are key, participation is simple and inviting, expertise is recognized and rewarded, and most importantly, great content rises to the top. Big organizations become personal, navigable groups where individuals can share a sense of belonging and purpose. Now, discussion forums have been around for a while, but in addition to being a great discussion forum, SharePoint communities are integrated into the broader social fabric with things like new search result templates and newsfeed notifications. Let me show you.

Finding a community

The Community Portal is a great place to start. From here you can find communities, and discussions happening within them, from across your entire organization. If I’m trying to find a place to talk about being a PM I might search for “PM”.

New search results templates for communities and discussions provide relevant information at a glance. You can see conversations happening within a community, best replies to questions, and recent replies to a discussion post without having to leave the search results page.

Visiting a community

Discussions are key in a community so a list of recent discussions is front-and-center on the home page. The most recent discussions are shown, but you can also pivot to view popular discussions, your discussions, unanswered/answered questions, and featured discussions.

Every discussion falls into a category. The categories page shows a gorgeous tile view of all of the categories. Hovering over a tile will show you more information about that category.

When you visit one of these categories you’ll see any featured discussions at the top.

When you click into a discussion with a best reply you’ll see it right at the top near the original discussion post.

Discussions also allow you to reply inline to another reply rather than only to the root post, and you can click to reveal a callout with the context for these types of replies. For example, Alex has replied to one of Molly’s post in this discussion.

You’ll see that most members will have an earned reputation score, and you can get information about a person’s community reputation by hovering.

Alex, however, has a badge that indicates he is a community moderator. Badges help you identify key community members such as moderators or subject-matter experts.

Joining and participating in a community

When you click the join button you’ll see that you are now following the community so you can easily find your way back later. Your followers will see a notification in their newsfeeds, telling them that you’ve joined this community (unless you’ve disabled these activity notifications in your privacy settings). As a member you can now participate in discussions. Suppose I would like some advice on which courses to take to improve my skills as a PM. I’ll start a new discussion and type my question into the title field, check the box to indicate that this is a question, and choose a category.

When you check the box to specify you are asking a question your discussion will appear in the list of unanswered or answered questions, whichever the case may be. You can also easily include images, video, and documents in discussions and replies. A notification is sent to your newsfeed when you start a discussion, and you’ll get an email notification when someone replies so you don’t have to keep coming back to check.

Suppose that as you are browsing through a community you find a question you know the answer to and reply. The original poster gets an email notification that you have replied to her discussion, sees the answer, and marks it as the best reply. A notification is sent to your newsfeed to let you (and people who follow you) know. On top of that, your contribution earned enough reputation points that you’ve moved up in status. Congratulations! You get another notification in your newsfeed.

You can go to the Members page to see information about your reputation. The point system is set by each community owner or moderator so it varies across the communities you are a member of.

So as you can see, with communities I have all the discussions that ever occurred available in one place, discoverable through search, and with the best content promoted by reputation or featured by community moderators. I know who the top contributors are so that I know who to trust and follow. I can even go to them directly if needed (thanks to the integrated Lync people card). Importantly, I can serendipitously discover great content, and help others do the same, thanks to feed notifications for key activities. And, its all based on SharePoint so communities can bring all the great content and funtionality that Sharepoint includes (like custom lists, document libraries, workflows, governance, etc).

There’s so much more to see! In an upcoming post we’ll show you how easy it is to set up and customize your community. In the mean time, check out the Office 365 Preview and feel free to ask questions or share your thoughts by posting a comment below.