Tuning email discussion list privacy for internal knowledge-sharing

Email discussion lists (aka listservs) are a simple and versatile tool for sharing knowledge and holding discussions using email. You can do a lot with the usual privacy settings: public or private. But unless you host your online groups site behind your firewall, neither of these are ideal for knowledge-sharing inside your organisation. OnlineGroups.net have just released a new privacy setting, the Public to site member group, that makes it easy to share knowledge inside your organisation, even though our service is hosted outside your firewall. It is a bit like a cloud-based extranet.

I’ll explain why we created this new privacy setting, how it works and how you can use it to find the information you are interested in, at the time you are interested in it.

Finding out what is going on in your organisation can be really difficult. You can’t follow everything but if you don’t you might miss some important news or waste time solving problems that have already been solved. This is hard enough when everyone is in the same building. It is even harder when people are spread across multiple locations. In larger organisations, divisions in the structure (aka “silos”) are the barriers.

The challenge can be summed up as finding the information you are interested in, at the time you are interested in it.

Email by itself is not much use for solving this problem. Most email is one-to-one. With one-to-many email, you don’t get to choose what you receive, the sender does. And with reply-all and cc, it is just a mess. There are approaches like enterprise social networking and others that involve getting people to ditch email but that is really hard because everyone uses email.

I have written before about how email discussion lists make it easy to collaborate using email. Fine tuning this requires a bit of thinking about privacy settings.

Online group privacy settings

I’ll use our own email groups service OnlineGroups.net as an example. With our online groups sites, there are three standard privacy settings.

  • Public where anyone can see the messages and files, and join to post and receive messages by email.
  • Private where only members can see the messages and files, and you can only join if you are invited, or if your request to join is accepted.
  • Secret where non members can not even see the group, and membership is invitation-only.

Secret groups are useful for collaboration in small, high trust groups working on confidential business. This amount of secrecy is quite rarely needed and should be used with care as making the group invisible to non-members makes it hard to find for members who are looking for the right place to log in.

Public groups are great for engaging the public in your conversations. They are easy to find and join but offer no restriction as to who will see your posts. For this reason they are not much use for internal conversations.

Private groups, on the other hand are good for internal conversations, where people will only be likely to post if they know that membership is restricted to people who meet certain criteria.

At OnlineGroups.net, most of the groups people start are private and most of the sites belong to an organisation. We thought about the problem of finding the information you are interested in, at the time you are interested in it and realised that private groups are a bit too restricted to be useful for that. For organisations wanting to improve internal knowledge-sharing, there seemed to be quite a gap between private and public groups. So we created a new privacy setting in the gap.

Public to site members groups

The new privacy setting is the Public to site members group. A public to site members group functions like a public group to site members and like a secret group to the public. Anyone who is in at least one group in your site is a site member.

With public to site member groups, all posts are visible to a logged-in site member. A site member can see and search the topics across the site and browse or search the group itself. A site member can join the group so they can receive posts by email (or a digest) and post to the group.

This new privacy setting makes it easy for people in your organisation to choose the information and discussions that are of interest to them, at the time that they are interested in them.

Here is the range of ways that you can tune the information flow in public to site members groups.

  • Scan or browse the topics on the site or in a group. You may happen across something interesting you did not know was there.
  • Search the topics on the site or in a group. You may find something that you need to solve a problem.
  • Read a post or topic in a group. Find details and context about the thing you are interested in.
  • Join a group to receive posts by email or a digest. Keep informed about something you are interested in.
  • Post a question or update to a group. Find a specific answer to your question or find people who are interested in what you are doing.

To a non-site member, public to site member groups and the posts in them are completely invisible.

You can use a private group to control who can become a site member. Of course you can still have as many private and secret groups as you like on the site.

It is not a good idea to have a public group on the same site as public to site member groups, as that means anyone can become a site member. If there is interest in having public and public to site members groups, we’ll look at a way to achieve this.

How an engineering firm uses online groups for knowledge-sharing

OnlineGroups.net customer Marshall Day Acoustics uses public to site member groups for knowledge-sharing among seventy acoustic engineers across twelve locations. Their groups span the various specialist areas of acoustic engineering within the firm. Engineers use the online groups to get fast answers to their questions and to skill up in new areas. Keith Ballagh of Marshall Day says

If you take on Marshall Day, it’s like a brain of seventy people, because if there’s something you don’t know, you type it in and within minutes you’ve got access to the collective wisdom of seventy people.

Read more about how Marshall Day Acoustics use their online groups site.

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