The Power of the Community Site Template

I know I’m not breaking any new ground here with this topic, but I’ve had two email exchanges this week where the solution that people needed was the out-of-the-box Community site template, which is available in SharePoint Server 2013 and Office 365 for mid-to-enterprise SKUs (not the Foundation or SMB SKUs, unfortunately). I thought I’d just share a quick use case and example.

Most companies use many different tools to communicate and collaborate across teams and across the entire organization, including platforms and tools such as SharePoint, OneDrive, Yammer, Jira, Zendesk, Chatter, and even Twitter and Facebook (although I would not recommend it). Depending on the project, the customer, or the context of the conversation or sharing of information, each tool might be used daily, weekly, or just occasionally – but used, nonetheless. With so many choices, it’s easy to decide on the wrong platform for a project. Of course, you may not realize it’s the wrong platform until you’ve already spent considerable time and effort. The common scenario I was asked about was the issues of capturing / collecting new product or service ideas in one place, so that everyone in the company could see them and discuss, as well as attach relevant content.

Historically, I’ve solved this problem with a spreadsheet and an FTP site, but that was fairly limited. Within SharePoint 2013, I’m a fan of the Community site, which includes built-in search of all community posts, threaded discussion, categorization of content, and all of the standard List capabilities, allowing you to set your compliance and governance policies and do things like automate through the use of workflow. There’s a lot you can do to make the Community site functional.

An example of how to use the template is providing one location for people to submit ideas or suggestions, with the goal of making these requests visible to everyone in the company and allowing for discussion at all levels. SharePoint’s discussion boards, blog, and wiki capabilities can provide some of this, but lack some of the community tools to improve employee engagement, such as tracking who submitted the most ideas, which ones were useful, and which were the most popular. People want something more akin to stackoverflow.com rather than a dumb list, so that that the best comments can automatically move to the top.

A community site provides some really cool features: the ability to categorize posts, organize all questions for more targeted viewing, and flag the best answers to push them straight to the top of all answers.

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Increasingly, companies want to flatten communication across organizations, pulling ideas and leveraging experience from across divisions and roles, and allow all employees and departments to participate in decision making, which the community site encourages. Users can build up their reputation by creating and replying to posts, as well as their posts getting liked, being rated a 4 or 5, and being marked as the ‘Best Reply.’ As part of your gamification strategy (if you have a strategy for getting employees more engaged in your platform), you can even expand on the basic template and create badges to reward employees for different reasons, such as answering a tough question, answering the most questions, or having the highest rating for the month – all of which encourages people to participate even more.

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The Community template can be used as a top-level community portal (at the Site Collection level, as well as at the Site level) so that users can search across communities easily. You may, for example, want to expand the use of community sites to ask questions to other employees and drive further engagement between teams and across the company. Questions they ask might include: Who is a SQL master? Who has deployed an add-in for SharePoint? Has anyone tested any 3rd party governance products? The features of the template provide an easy way to increase the flow of communication across an organization and easily view the best answers to questions like these.

Beyond just internal use, Community sites can be exposed to the outside world. The site can exists as private (invite only), closed (everyone has read rights but approved members can contribute), or open (can either be open to anyone or you can require an action to join). It’s obvious that community sites are a great way to increase adoption. As more of our clients are migrating to SharePoint 2013 and to Office 365, I’m sure we’ll see even more business cases like this example, and hear more about how new features have positively or negatively affected their projects.

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Servers and Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and CMO of revealit.io, a blockchain-based video technology company.