Online communities have flourished in organizations in recent years, but large numbers of them fail. A deeper understanding of how participation can be promoted in online idea communities (OIC) is essential, because the most common reason of failure is low levels of participation. In this paper, we investigated how participation could be encouraged in an intra–organizational OIC. Our case organization was Sollentuna municipality in Sweden. They decided to introduce an OIC to collect ideas from staff as input when developing the municipality’s forthcoming IT strategy. We used the theory of online identity–based communities (Ren, et al., 2007) as a lens and a mixed research method comprising interviews and an analysis of the content of the OIC. While this theoretical perspective certainly has merits on its own, the study topic at hand made it necessary to complement the theory with more specific design principles that take the unique characteristics of intra–organiztional OIC into account. These included that managers were expected by staff to be core members of the community, frequent and complementing promotion activities were necessary in order for the OIC to be used, very low entry barriers were expected, and the employees expected the discussion to be focused, both in terms of content and time. The design principles need to be tested and further developed, by conducting studies on other OIC.
From design to participation in online communities
Limitations and further work
Concepts like online communities and social networks have flourished in recent years, although large numbers of them fail (Ling, et al., 2005). However, despite intense contemporary discussion, we are in need of more research and a deeper understanding of online communities in intra–organizational settings in general (Kelleher and Miller, 2006, Zhang, et al., 2010), and the needs and expectations on users in particular (Centeno, et al., 2004). A great deal of online idea community (OIC) software is currently available on the Web. Typically, these systems allow their users to suggest ideas, comment and discuss ideas, and vote on ideas (Hrastinski, et al., in press). Even though many organizations experiment with online communities, there is little theoretically grounded knowledge on how to develop, manage and improve such communities (Hercheui, 2007; Ren, et al., 2007; Wiertz and de Ruyter, 2007). Similarly, intra–organizational use of various social media applications, allowing for employee suggestions and discussions, appear to be on the rise (McKenna, 2010), although researchers and practitioners alike are not entirely sure as to whether or not these new technologies “are going to have a real business impact.” .
In this paper, our case organization is the Sollentuna municipality in Sweden. So far, most studies have focused on external use of OIC in corporate U.S. settings (e.g., Baehr and Alex–Brown, 2010; Di Gangi and Wasko, 2009; Gallaugher and Ransbotham, 2010). We complement previous research by studying intra–organizational use of an OIC in a municipality in Sweden. Sollentuna decided to introduce an organizational online idea community (OIC) to collect ideas from staff as input when developing their forthcoming IT strategy. As a complement, interviews and workshops, i.e., methods that were used for developing the previous IT strategies were conducted. Prior to this project, Sollentuna has taken a top–down approach when developing IT strategies. Successful organizational change communication is typically based on the creation of opportunity for the staff to be part of the communication and contribute to organizational development (Langer and Thorup, 2006; Weick, et al., 2006). In line with this theoretical argument, the management of Sollentuna municipality decided to attempt to implement a bottom–up perspective, hoping to engage and empower exployees, by using an OIC.
This paper examines how participation can be encouraged in an intra–organizational OIC in a municipality. In addressing this aim, we were also interested to identify factors that the employees perceived as barriers to participate more actively in the OIC. More specifically, our study was guided by the following questions:
- How can participation be encouraged in an intra–organizational OIC in a municipality?
- Which factors did the employees perceive as barriers to participate more actively in the OIC?
Wenger (1998) defines participation as “a process of taking part and also to the relations with others that reflect this process.”  He argues that participation is not a separate activity that can be turned on and off. Thus, it should be clarified that we may participate in idea generation even at times when we are not in the process of formulating or discussing ideas. We might, for example, be reflecting individually or discussing informally with colleagues. A commonly held assumption that researchers have increasingly come to challenge is that participation is often measured as the number or length of contributions (Hrastinski, 2008; Vonderwell and Zachariah, 2005). However, much reading is not passive since it may encompass engagement, thought and reflection (Romiszowski and Mason, 2004). This implies that participation is not tantamount to the frequency of submitted ideas, comments or votes. From this perspective, frequency measures of ideas, comments and votes are not enough: We also need an understanding of user perceptions of benefits and limitations of using an OIC. Consequently, we have complemented our analysis of the use of the OIC, with staff interviews in order to better understand user perceptions.
The outline of the paper is as follows. First, we provide an overview of research on how to design for participation in online communities, with a focus on organizations and municipalities. Then, we describe the method of our study and present the results. This is followed by a discussion of the results, acknowledgement of limitations and opportunities for further research. Finally, we put forward our main conclusions.
From design to participation in online communities
An online community can be defined as an “Internet–connected collective of people who interact over time around a shared purpose, interest or need.”  Some online communities interact purely online while others engage in both off–line and online interaction (Andrews, 2002). Online communities and other applications in line with the Web 2.0 concept enable users to engage in collaboration and it is the users themselves that create the content (e.g., O’Reilly, 2005; boyd and Ellison, 2008). This does not necessarily mean that online communities are not governed by rules — Graham (1999) maintains that online social networks are characterized by the existence of joint interests and rules. In the next section, we review research on online idea communities in organizations and municipalities. Then, we discuss how to design for participation in online identity–based communities. As will be discussed below, our case organization, Sollentuna municipality, strived towards building such a community for its internal development of a new IT strategy.
Online idea communities in organizations and municipalities
The two most common cases of OIC, typically found in the open innovation or crowdsourcing literature, is Dell and Starbucks. Their customers can propose ideas, comment on others’ ideas and vote on ideas, on anything they would like Starbucks or Dell to improve. Di Gangi and Wasko (2009) studied Dell IdeaStorm and argued that substantial resources are needed to sustain an external OIC. A key problem is how to choose which ideas to develop. End users’ ideas may not fit with the organization’s business model. The organization must find a balance between their own and customers’ interests and based on that decide which ideas to adopt (Di Gangi and Wasko, 2009). In related work, Baehr and Alex–Brown (2010) focused on the internal use of blogging at Dell, and found that this particular Internet service had effects of increased understanding of organizational roles, improved professional and personal ties among employees as well as an increased sense of group cohesiveness. Starbucks has also received attention for their online initiatives, mainly focused on external use. For example, the company has provided a platform for customer ideas for company and service development, coupled with allowing the customers to vote for the ideas that they like (Gallaugher and Ransbotham, 2010; Jansen, et al., 2009).
Sweden has a relatively high number of Internet users. According to Internet World Stats (2010), 92.5 percent of the Swedish population has access to the Internet. Several municipalities in Sweden have established an external OIC, but mainly to get feedback from the public. Borås, Malmö, Botkyrka and Avesta are examples of Swedish municipalities that have invited the public to suggest ideas on how the municipality can improve. In the Borås municipality, anyone can submit comments and vote on ideas (Borås, 2011). They have assigned two of their staff to respond to posts and questions. As a complement, the Borås municipality uses blogs and Twitter to communicate and disseminate information. In the Malmö municipality, possibilities are given for the citizens to provide suggestions and ideas, for which viewing, discussing and voting are open for the public (Malmö, 2011). The Botkyrka municipality also makes it possible for their citizens to submit ideas. In addition ideas could be submitted via e–mail or a Web form. The platform has also been used for dissemination of a city plan (Botkyrka, 2011). The Avesta municipality provided an opportunity for its citizens to suggest ideas for future development of the Avesta city centre (Avesta, 2011). The users had to register in order to submit an idea. A forum and face–to–face meetings in public spaces were offered. All registered users participated in a lottery for prizes. From the submitted ideas, the municipality’s officials chose one winning idea. This idea was then open for refinement and additional suggestions, in order to enable ideas of more detail. In a third phase, these ideas were open for a voting procedure. The Avesta municipality has a population of approximately 21,500 inhabitants (Avesta, 2010). However, only 23 votes were cast on a total of six suggestions. The most popular suggestion received nine votes.
In line with these observations, Kelleher (2008) studied how public relations professionals perceived social media, concluding that there appears to be “a disconnect between the potential relational benefits of social media and practitioner willingness to use them.”  This furthers the importance of a deep understanding of how participation can be encouraged in an OIC, and which factors that were perceived as barriers.
Online identity–based communities
In social psychological studies of voluntary real–world groups, such as fraternities and clubs, the theories of common identity and common bond have been defined. Members in an identity–based community mainly establish a relationship with the community as a whole, while members in a bond–based community primarily build relationships with individuals of the community (Ren, et al., 2007). These two key explanations for why people participate in communities have also been confirmed in major literature reviews on online communities (Ren, et al., 2007; Wiertz and de Ruyter, 2007). Both identity–based and bond–based attachment positively impact members’ perceptions of the community, their commitment, and their participation (Ren, et al., 2007).
The OIC under investigation strived towards becoming an identity–based community, because the primary purpose was to contribute towards developing Sollentuna’s IT strategy, rather than promoting relationships with other individuals. Identification with identity–based communities can become powerful, despite that many of the members often do not know each other (Ren, et al., 2007). Ren, et al. (2007) identified three antecedents of attachment to identity–based communities:
- Social categorization: People are part of the same social category. “Categorization can be based on objective criteria, such as organizational membership, or on subjective criteria, such as participants’ political values or choices.” 
- Interdependence: People are interdependent because of a joint task or common purpose. “[A] joint task, a common purpose, common fate, or joint rewards fosters group identity.” 
- Intergroup comparisons: Members compare themselves with other groups. “[R]aising the salience of out–groups intensifies people’s commitment to their in–groups.” 
Ren, et al. (2007) developed implications for designing online identity–based communities, by drawing on the review of the common identity literature. They suggested that such communities should have clear mission statements to keep communication on–topic, should support anonymity and large numbers of participants, and should be conducted in public forums. Moreover, they identified the following five dimensions of design choices and trade–offs:
- Newcomer socialization: Newcomers often “lurk” before they become active members (Lave and Wenger, 1991). Typical ways of designing for newcomers is to lower entry barriers, to encourage participation in conversations, and to provide feedback. Strategies for identity–based communities include helping newcomers to navigate, to understand community norms, and to engage in community conversations.
- Discussion moderation: Designers of identity–based communities typically encourage members to talk about the topic of the community. Evaluations can be used as a moderation function by asking members to rate posts for relevance and quality.
- Community size: Large membership is often positive in identity–based communities as this can lead to rich new content. However, large online groups also have more turnover.
- The role of core members: The critical mass of the community, typically a very small group, contributes significantly more content than average members. Status and reputation is a common reward mechanism for core members. A challenge is to recognize and motivate core members while also encouraging average and peripheral contributors.
- Subgroups: Many communities organize subgroups around the overarching theme of the community. Subgroups are more compatible with bond–based communities, rather than identity–based communities, as the former often is designed to support personal relationships in subgroups. There is a risk that subgroups do not contribute towards the general goal of the community.
Antikainen and Väätäja (2010) provide complementing insights on reward mechanisms in an external OIC. They interviewed the community maintainers of three online idea communities, which stated that users found both monetary incitements rewarding as well as non–monetary incitements rewarding to be important. The users perceived that recognition encouraged them to participate in the forum but that monetary reward stimulated them to participate even more. Moreover, they perceived it as more important to focus on the quality of ideas, rather than the frequency of contributions. A challenge is how to fairly determine who should be rewarded or recognized.
Most previous research have focused on external OIC. As such, the premises of this study posits a new direction, focusing on an internal OIC implementation. From research on external OICs, there appears to be a disconnection between potential use and practitioner willingness to use the systems at hand, a finding corroborated by the municipality initiatives that were reviewed above. Substantial resources are needed to sustain external OIC. Moreover, organizations must find a balance between their own and customers’ interests and based on that decide which ideas to pursue further (Di Gangi and Wasko, 2009). Recognition but also monetary rewards can stimulate participation (Antikainen and Väätäja, 2010). Reported benefits of internal OIC are increased understanding of organizational roles, improved ties among employees and increased group cohesiveness (Baehr and Alex–Brown, 2010). In summary, the literature on intra–organizational OIC is scarce. However, findings from the more substantial body of literature on external OIC might be confirmed or rejected in our study. We will use the design dimensions of online identity–based communities as a foundational framework when analyzing the OIC initiative in the Sollentuna municipality.
The Sollentuna municipality is located in Stockholm and has a population of approximately 63,300 individuals. In 2009, the number of employees were almost 2,900 people (Swedish Association of Local Authorities, 2010). The municipality is responsible for community services for residents, which includes school, pre–school, social services and elderly care. When having developed earlier IT strategies, interviews and workshops have been used to collect suggestions and ideas from employees. Interviews have been used as the basis for subsequent workshops. The objectives, barriers, needs, problems and possible projects that have been raised during the interviews were then evaluated and synthesized into 10 tasks that were discussed during the workshop. The workshop was designed as a brainstorming session, where the participants were discussing the different topics, prioritized them and discussed whom they suggested to be responsible for each task.
In the project under examination, an OIC was used as a complement and input to the 15 interviews and three workshops that were conducted as previously. The software User Voice was chosen for the project (see Figure 1), based on a review of 51 online idea community software (Hrastinski, et al., in press). Reasons include that it is simple to use, it includes administrative tools and the graphic profile of the municipality could be used. The functionality of User Voice includes the possibility to submit new ideas, to comment on ideas and to vote. The Sollentuna municipality management decided that the following six categories were to be used to organize ideas and comments: dialogue and democracy, information and services, IT in schools, IT and our internal work, legal issues and collaboration with others. The OIC was available online for 11 weeks. All employees could use it to submit ideas, comments and votes.
Figure 1: Screenshot of the OIC software.
In order to better understand how participation can be encouraged in an intra–organizational OIC and factors that were perceived as barriers, semi–structured interviews and an analysis of the use of the OIC were conducted. We explored why some employees participated while others did not, and employee attitudes to using an OIC to support the development of the IT strategy. The respondents were selected based on a number of criteria in order to get a broad overview: different frequencies of OIC use, different departments in the municipality, managers and employees, and people of different ages and gender.
We interviewed six males and five females. Their mean age was 49 years and ranged from 33 to 64 years. Their average use of computers was 5.5 hours per day, mostly at work. The respondents represented different parts of the Sollentuna Municipality, such as the management, health care, culture and leisure, children and youth as well as the consulting and service office. Additional descriptive data on the respondents is available in Table 1. Each interview lasted for about 30 minutes and it was conducted at the workplace of the respondent. The interviews were recorded and transcribed.
Based on a literature review, Iriberri and Leroy (2009) argued that the larger the volume of messages posted and the closer members feel to each other, the more successful the online community becomes. Hence, we complemented the interviews with descriptive statistics on the number of ideas, comments and votes, and how these were distributed across people and time. We could retrieve these data by using the administrative tool of the OIC. However, as argued above, to provide a more in–depth analysis of how participation could be encouraged in an intra–organizational OIC and factors that were perceived as barriers, the quantitative data was triangulated with staff interviews as this allowed us to better understand user perceptions.
Table 1: Descriptive data for the respondents. Name
Age Gender Employment Computer use
Internet use Participation in the OIC Johan 33 Male Sports consultant 7 Search for information Visited the OIC, but did not contribute Nils 37 Male Head of a secondary school 5 E–mail and search for information Did not visit the OIC Stina 38 Female Manager for a short–term home for children 5 Search for information, e–mail, Facebook Contributed in the beginning Bengt 45 Male Librarian 5 E–mail, calendar, library sites Read few postings in the beginning Lisa 48 Female Head of culture and recreation office 2 E–mail, invoices, Web shopping Did not visit the OIC Jonas 49 Male IT manager at a secondary school 6 E–mail, intranet, search for information A couple of votes and comments Eva 50 Female Head of the executive office 6 Intranet, search for information Visited the OIC, but did not contribute Anders 54 Male Employed at the executive office 8 Invoices, communication Used the OIC frequently Sven 58 Male Employed at the service office 5 Search for information Visited the OIC several times every week, commented Berit 64 Female Manager in health care 5 Search for information Visited the OIC, but did not contribute Gunn 64 Female Employed at the executive office 6 E–mail Visited the OIC occasionally, but did not contribute
In this section, we first present general perceptions of the OIC. Then, we present the results organized according to the five design dimensions of online identity–based communities (Ren, et al., 2007).
Most of the respondents felt that the OIC was a good tool for collecting brief proposals and ideas, although some said that face–to–face meetings are more rewarding. They regarded the OIC as a complement to face–to–face meetings because ideas can be collected from a larger number of employees. Most of the respondents preferred face–to–face meetings to using the OIC, including those that participated actively in the community, because they felt that it was easier to ask questions and get clarifications in such settings. Another perceived benefit was that face–to–face meetings are scheduled and participation synchronous, which made participation more likely:
“In a workshop, it can become very creative and you can get ideas from different angles and discuss intensely.” (Anders)
Benefits with using the OIC included the possibility to submit ideas just in time, ideas can be read by many, one can get feedback from a large number of people in different parts of the organization, anyone can contribute, and the staff get a better understanding of ideas and opinions of others in the organization. The employees felt that they did not have time to contribute in the OIC. The perceived limitations also included that many of the respondents were mainly interested in activities in their own department, which they felt more closely associated with, and in that case they felt it was easier with a discussion in a meeting.
Visiting an OIC is something the employees felt they would do if they have time, but not if they are busy. However, some also mentioned that an interview or workshop could take more time than visiting an OIC. The respondents felt it was necessary to conduct interviews, as some people do not take the time to participate in workshops or by using an OIC. This was also argued to be dependent on the task. If it is questions directed towards specific people, one respondent, who visited the OIC but did not contribute, argued that they should not need to formulate their ideas in written text:
“You cannot require that the person should write all information in a forum, because you give that person all the work rather than talking with him and doing it yourself.” (Eva)
The interviews were regarded as preferable in order to ask follow–up questions and discuss. Some respondents argued that a benefit with workshops and interviews is that it is more likely to engage in issues not directly related with your daily work. However, they said that they would not write about this in an OIC. It was also more likely that they would participate when asked to join a workshop as compared with an OIC. A disadvantage that was mentioned was that some might not dare to express their ideas and opinions in a workshop, which they would in an OIC. Some also prefer the OIC because it gives them time to think.
A number of promotion activities were conducted during the first five weeks of the project (see Table 2). The OIC was promoted at a managers’ meeting with about 80 participants at the same day as the OIC was launched. At this meeting a folder was distributed that described the project. There was also information regarding the OIC on the intranet, such as new ideas and comments, during the first two weeks. The managers of the project sent e–mail to about 10 people that they felt could be interested, which then was forwarded to an unknown number of other people. The municipality had a policy not to send e–mail to all staff. On the fourth week of the project, the staff bulletin published an article that described the project. In Table 2, it is evident that the promotion activities seemed to positively affect participation frequencies in the OIC, and was also perceived as important by the respondents. One exception is the second week, when there were technical problems with the intranet.
Table 2: Activity and promotion events. Week Ideas Comments Votes Promotion activity 1 10 11 37 Management meeting
News on the intranet
E–mail with invitation to workshop and information about the OIC
2 0 1 2 News on the intranet 3 5 6 29 E–mail to the municipality board 4 3 2 15 Article in the staff bulletin 5 2 6 10 E–mail with invitation to workshop and information about the OIC 6 0 5 6 7 0 4 1 8 1 1 2 9 0 0 0 10 0 0 0 11 0 0 0 Total 21 36 102
Some of the respondents perceived that they had received information about the OIC project on several occasions, while others had only been reached by one of the promotion activities. Six of the respondents had received information about the OIC at the manager’s meeting, five had received information via the intranet, four had received information by e–mail, and six had received information in other ways, such as internal meetings or in the coffee room.
An important aspect of newcomer socialization is to have low entry barriers (Ren, et al., 2007). The respondents felt it was important that the OIC was only promoted during a limited time period. Several employees argued that it takes time to contribute and that they prioritized other tasks. They said that it was impossible to keep track of all information and Web sites you are supposed to use. Most respondents mentioned they would have preferred getting e–mail messages with reminders and a Web link to the OIC, which makes it possible to “drop in, in a simple way”. Three of the respondents who did not contribute to the OIC suggested that it would have been easier to get questions by e–mail instead of having to access a Web site:
“It’s probably easier to answer [by e–mail] because it is more personal, when one ask for my view and when it’s not necessary that the people need to go somewhere [to the OIC] in order to answer.” (Johan)
As mentioned above, there were technical problems with the intranet during the second week of the project, which were perceived as a barrier. Also, many of the staff do not have a personal computer or e–mail address at work, making it less likely that they were aware of the project.
A benefit of focusing on developing an IT strategy was that the respondents felt it was important to know what they were supposed to discuss, and they were more inclined to participate when they knew that they would only need to participate during a limited time period. For example, one employee only visited the OIC in the beginning of the project:
“... it feels less strenuous when you know it is time limited, that it will finish sometime.” (Bengt)
Another reason why several employees felt that the OIC should be temporary, was that someone needs to moderate it in order to promote activity. A municipality has many different departments and activities and many of the respondents felt that it would be very difficult to distribute the ideas across the municipality and to get feedback on the progress of each idea.
About half of the group of respondents mentioned that it was important that those responsible for the OIC were clear about what kind of information that was requested, which kinds of opinions and suggestions, how the postings will be reviewed and how the ideas will be used. Many respondents said that they wanted feedback on the progress of the suggestions, why some would be implemented and why others would not. This information could be presented in the OIC or on the intranet, where they wanted to be able to follow the process. Two of the respondents thought that the participants should get a reward for participating, such as a cinema or lottery ticket. However, both these respondents were active contributors. Thus, we do not know whether this approach would have stimulated less active participants. For example, a suggestion was that the best idea during a month or week could be rewarded and could also get attention on the intranet:
“One should get something to participate. If you contribute with a good proposal you want to know that the idea was good, that it will be used and that you got something. It might incite others to be more active as well.” (Anders)
The OIC was available for eleven weeks, although there was only activity during the first eight weeks. In total, 21 ideas, 36 comments and 102 votes were submitted (see Table 2). Twenty–eight different people submitted an idea or comment.
The role of core members
When discussing motivation for participation with the respondents, they mainly mentioned three incentives for participation, all of which concerned the role of core members. First, most respondents felt that their head of department and the management should motivate the staff. They felt that it was likely that they would have participated more if their head of department had participated actively. Paradoxically, while the management strived towards empowering the employees, the staff asked for more of a top management approach. Second, many respondents also argued that it was necessary to find “the right people” that are interested in the topic, which could help to get the discussion going. Third, some respondents said they do not prioritize tasks not directly related to their work, and therefore it is necessary that the management make it clear that using the OIC is part of their core tasks. The following two respondents maintained that they did not contribute with ideas because of this reason:
“No one from the management said we had to do it. It was more like a question and then you don’t take the time to do it.” (Gunn)
“The management has to push more so that one feel the pressure and realize that it’s important to answer. It needs to be mandatory, otherwise it doesn’t get done.” (Lisa)
The OIC under investigation used six categories to organize idea generation, i.e., dialogue and democracy, information and services, IT in school, IT and our internal work, legal issues and collaboration with others (see Table 3). Two of the categories — IT and our internal work, and information and services — gained most interest.
Table 3: Categories, ideas, comments and votes. Category Ideas Comments Votes Dialogue and democracy 3 5 7 Information and services 8 13 27 IT in school 2 3 4 IT and our internal work 8 15 47 Legal issues 0 0 0 Collaboration with others 0 0 0
Several respondents said they were mainly interested in the work at their department and felt it would have been better to discuss their work rather than using an overarching forum. Some felt that these broad categories were sufficient, while others suggested that specific questions or more specific subcategories should be used. Perceived advantages of using categories was that one could find the topic you were interested in, and only need to find time to follow that category. Overall, the respondents felt that categories are necessary, but they felt that there is no ideal way to use categories, as put forth by the following active contributors:
“However you categorize it, one can complain, but it has to be categorized in some way.” (Jonas)
“I believe that many thought that it was difficult to know where to put the suggestion. One could not have had categories ... You could present your suggestion under a general heading ... It can be easier if one doesn’t have any [categories] but it can also be helpful with categories if they are intuitive.” (Anders)
We set out to investigate how participation can be encouraged in an intra–organizational OIC, and to identify factors that were perceived as barriers to participate in the community. We used the theory of online identity–based communities (Ren, et al., 2007) as a lens. Identified factors that were perceived to encourage or limit participation, organized according to the research questions, are presented in Table 4.
Table 4: Encouraging participation and addressing barriers. How can participation be encouraged in an intra–organizational OIC in a municipality? Which factors did the employees perceive as barriers to participate more actively in the OIC? Managers and “key people” as core members — Managers were expected by staff to be core members of the community and to personally motivate the staff to contribute.
— “Key people” with expertise in the topic should be invited.
— The head of the departments and the management did not participate in the OIC. Promotion activities — Different and complementing types of promotion activities are necessary in order to promote participation.
— It is easier to encourage employees to participate in a time limited project.
— Feedback on ideas and recognition can promote participation.
— The frequency of ideas, comments and votes dropped sharply when there were no promotion activities.
— Employees got limited feedback on ideas.
Low entry barriers — Entry barriers, mainly lack of time and prioritizing to participate, need to be addressed. — Lack of time.
— Participation was not prioritized, as compared with other tasks.
— Preference of face–to–face meetings.
— Preference of low–tech media, such as e–mail.
— Time consuming to write text.
— Technical problems.
Focus of discussion — The employees expected the discussion to be focused, both in terms of content and time.
— Keep the discussion focused on a topic or specific categories.
— Not clear what kinds of information that was requested, and how the ideas would be reviewed and implemented.
— Employees were mainly interested discussing “their work”.
It was evident that the OIC under investigation did not fulfill all criteria of an identity–based community, but it was a useful underlying theory as the intention of the management was for it to become such a community. As prescribed by Ren, et al. (2007), the members of the community were part of the same social category — a municipality, and they were interdependent because of the joint task to develop an IT strategy, although very few of the employees engaged in this task. We did not find evidence of intergroup comparison, as members did not compare themselves with other groups when posting ideas and comments in the OIC or in the interviews. The OIC also adhered to most of the overall design recommendations suggested by Ren, et al., i.e., there was a clear mission statement, anonymity was allowed and large membership was regarded as positive. However, the OIC was intended to be used within the municipality rather than by the public.
Our study confirmed the disconnection that has been reported between potential use and practitioner willingness to participate in online media (Kelleher, 2008), a finding that has also been found when examining external use of OIC in a municipality (Avesta, 2011). The challenge of deciding which ideas to purse further, reported in corporate settings (Di Gangi and Wasko, 2009), was not evident in our study, as rather few ideas were suggested, making it easier to prioritize. The respondents would have liked more feedback on the progress of the ideas, but few asked for recognition or monetary awards, which has been reported as a driver in external OIC (Antikainen and Väätäja, 2010). We did not discern increased group cohesiveness and ties among employees, as reported by Baehr and Alex–Brown (2010) when studying internal blogging at Dell. One reason is probably that rather few participated in the OIC. Drawing on the results, the theory of online identity–based communities was useful as a foundation to our study, but it was apparent that somewhat different factors encouraged participation in the OIC under investigation. We have identified four key design principles that affected participation in the OIC under investigation, which are discussed below. When designing for participation in intra–organizational OIC, we suggest that these principles can be used as a complement to the more general theory of online identity–based communities.
Managers and ”key people“ as core members
As prescribed by Ren, et al. (2007) we found that the role of the core members was perceived as very important. The management strived towards building an open and inclusive identity–based community, where employees established a relationship with the community as a whole, rather than with the management. However, most of the respondents suggested that the managers should have been the core members of the community. The respondents argued that the head of the departments and the management need to participate and motivate the staff to contribute. Many respondents suggested that the management of the OIC should invite ”key people“ interested in each topic, which would help get the discussion going. A question that remains is how to succeed in building an intra–organizational OIC where the employees, rather than the management, are the centre of attention.
There were a number of promotion activities connected with this project and it was evident that these activities positively affected participation. After the fifth week, when there were no promotion activities, the frequency of ideas, comments and votes dropped sharply. During the second week of the project, there were technical problems with the intranet, where the OIC was promoted, which resulted in low participation frequencies during that week. Many appreciated the fact that the project was time limited, which made them more inclined to participate. Many respondents wanted feedback on which ideas that would (or would not) be implemented and they would also like to follow the process. This approach has been used by, for example, Dell and Starbucks in external OIC (Di Gangi and Wasko, 2009). It was also suggested that participants of high quality ideas should get a reward, such as a cinema or lottery ticket. Similarly, Antikainen and Väätäja (2010) studied reward mechanisms in external OIC and found that recognition was the most important encouragement to participants, while monetary reward stimulated them to participate even more. Ren, et al. (2007) suggested that status and reputation is an important reward mechanism for core members. However, in the specific type of community under investigation, rewards were also perceived to have potential to encourage peripheral members to become more active participants.
Low entry barriers
We could discern a number of a number of factors that were perceived as barriers. The major perceived barrier was that it takes time to contribute to the OIC and that this task was rarely prioritized. Some of the respondents mentioned that it was time consuming to write text and that they should not be required to formulate ideas in written texts, and therefore they preferred workshops and interviews. Another commonly mentioned barrier was that face–to–face meetings were generally preferred over using the OIC. The staff wanted to discuss directly, and felt it was easier to ask questions and get clarifications in face–to–face meetings. One the one hand, several respondents mentioned that it was more likely that they would participate when having been personally invited to a meeting. On the other hand, others argued that it was easy to contribute when using the OIC, because ideas could be submitted just in time. Most respondents said they would have preferred getting e–mail messages with reminders and a Web link to the OIC, which would have made it easier to “drop in”. Another barrier that hindered participation was technical problems with the intranet during the second week of the project.
Focus of discussion
As prescribed by Ren, et al. (2007), members of the OIC under investigation underlined the importance of keeping the discussion focused. Many respondents appreciated the focus on IT strategy. It was also commonly mentioned the importance of that those responsible for an OIC are clear about what kinds of information that are requested, and how the ideas will be reviewed and implemented. Another way of keeping the discussion focused that was appreciated was by using categories to organize the ideas. Several of the respondents said they were mainly interested in the work at their department and preferred discussing “their work” rather than using an overarching forum.
Limitations and further work
Two categories — IT and our internal work, and information and services — gained most interest (see Table 3). However, as we are not able to discern the origin of the ideas, it is difficult to see whether this is content dependent, dependent on the proximity of these questions to the respondents own domain of work, or if the majority of the contributors actually belong to a smaller homogeneous subgroup, and the activity could be explained by computer literacy, use of voicing concerns or similar. This needs be further investigated in future research.
While the focus on internal communication employed in this paper is a valid one in order to map out the characteristics of discussions as well as discussants, future research should also try to assess how organizations such as municipalities employ various Web tools for external purposes. While Wiklund (2005) studied how Swedish municipalities made use of various ‘Web 1.0’ applications to maintain contact with their respective citizenry, the recent online developments towards a ‘Web 2.0’ merits future research efforts in order to understand how organizations, such as municipalities, make use of these new internet tools for external as well as internal purposes (Kelleher and Miller, 2006; Zhang, et al., 2010).
OICs are only as good a tool for reaching the organizational objectives as the ideas shared by their users. For this purpose, future research on OIC should emphasize the systematic understanding of design considerations from the point of success factors of the particular organization. Warr (2008) investigated the potential business impact of social media applications. However, increasingly more, identity–based communities like municipalities are to communicate parliamentary information and exercise administration and policy–making for civil society via electronic media and Internet tools, cf., eGovernment including the empowerment of citizens and organizations to have a say in decision–making via electronic media (eGovernment Delegation, 2009). Hence, particular research efforts are called for regarding the design considerations for social media applications deployed in decision–making and policy–making for governing civil society. In particular, when shaping the individuals voice into a more collective approach (OECD, 2003), to understand how the design promotes or demotes participation for heterogeneous subgroups is imperative.
In this paper, we have investigated how participation could be encouraged in an OIC and identified factors that were perceived as barriers to participation in the community. Our study, conducted in an intra–organizational setting, confirms the disconnection that has been reported between potential use and practitioner willingness for an OIC in a municipality (Avesta, 2011). The rather general theory of online identity–based communities was useful to guide the design of the OIC under investigation, but needed to be augmented by the following more specific design principles that take the unique characteristics of the internal use of an OIC in a municipality into account:
- Managers as core members. Managers are expected by staff to be core members of the community and to personally motivate the staff to contribute.
- Promotion activities. Different and complementing types of promotion activities are necessary in order to promote participation.
- Low entry barriers. The employees expected very low entry barriers. Perceived barriers included lack of time, preference of face–to–face meetings, preference of low–tech media such as e–mail, and technical problems.
- Focus of discussion. The employees expected the discussion to be focused, both in terms of content and time.
When comparing with previous research, our study confirms rather few earlier findings, for example, the difficulty of deciding which ideas to pursue because of large numbers of ideas (Di Gangi and Wasko, 2009), and increased group cohesiveness and ties among employees (Baehr and Alex–Brown, 2010). One reason might be that most previous case studies have focused on successful use of OIC in large U.S. corporations (e.g., Baehr and Alex–Brown, 2010; Di Gangi and Wasko, 2009; Gallaugher and Ransbotham, 2010). Another reason may be that the employees seem to have viewed the OIC as a tool for top management control rather than a tool for empowerment of the employees. The present study if of explorative character and should be seen as a starting point for further inquiry. In future research, the design principles suggested above need to be tested and further developed, by conducting studies on OIC in complementary settings.
About the authors
Dr. Stefan Hrastinski is associate professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology and affiliated with Uppsala University. His research interests include online learning and collaboration in organizational and educational settings.
E–mail: stefanhr [at] kth [dot] se
Sofie Sjöström recently completed her M.Sc. in Media Technology at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Parts of this paper are based on her thesis work.
E–mail: sofiesj [at] kth [dot] se
Jenny Eriksson Lundström is associate senior lecturer in Information Systems at Uppsala University. Her research interests include technologies and management of modular open innovation.
E–mail: jenny [dot] eriksson [at] im [dot] uu [dot] se
Anders Olof Larsson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Informatics and Media at Uppsala University. He is currently working on his thesis, which deals with institutional use of online interactivity. Anders work has appeared, or is scheduled to appear, in journals like New Media & Society, Convergence and First Monday.
E–mail: anders [dot] larsson [at] im [dot] uu [dot] se
Håkan Ozan is a strategic management consultant at Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), specializing in IT strategy and innovation management. He is the Innovation Manager of CSC Sweden and has an M.Sc. in computer science and a B.Sc. in economics.
E–mail: hakan [dot] ozan [at] nita [dot] uu [dot] se
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Received 29 June 2011; revised 11 August 2011; accepted 17 September 2011.
Copyright © 2011, First Monday.
Copyright © 2011, Stefan Hrastinski, Sofie Sjöström, Jenny Eriksson Lundström, Anders Olof Larsson, and Håkan Ozan.
Encouraging participation in an intra–organizational online idea community: A case study of a Swedish municipality
by Stefan Hrastinski, Sofie Sjöström, Jenny Eriksson Lundström, Anders Olof Larsson, and Håkan Ozan.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 10 - 3 October 2011