SPC 2012: John Pruitt & Robin Miller’s ‘Building Vibrant Communities in SharePoint 2013’

Microsoft’s John Pruitt and Robin Miller, both of whom are Program Managers on the SharePoint Experiences Team, presented a Wednesday morning SPC session on the new Community site template that’s available in SharePoint 2013. John explained that he and Robin are “part of the engineering team,” and that their role is primarily in helping to build end user-facing features such as the new Community site templates.

Referencing the oft-heard-at-SPC headline that “social has been given a big boost in SharePoint 2013,” John said that, building on the features of 2010, “we’ve added a whole new set of features and functionality.” Noting that there are four categories of communities (communities of practice, communities of purpose, communities of interest, and communities for social interaction), John stated that communities are now “part of the social hub in 2013.”

Having realized that there was no best practice example of what a community in SharePoint might look like, John explained that they “set out to build a community site template at the beginning of this release cycle.”  In SharePoint, said John, “social is about getting the most out of your colleagues,” so the team made particular investments in reputation, rewarding expertise, and encouraging participation. Of necessity, the engineering team also focused on improving the discussion experience since “communities revolve around discussions.”

At this point, Robin stepped in to provide the first of several demos she would lead during the session. In the first demo, she showed that discussions were “front and center” in the community template and that there is a button featured prominently that will allow users to Join the community. A list spotlighting the community’s Top contributors appears in the right rail, and Robin showed that Unanswered questions, Featured discussions, and New discussions are also prominent. As well, a Categories page provides an overview of the range of topics under discussion, and Sticky posts appear at the top of the discussion.

Robin also demonstrated that you can setup an email or text alert within a discussion (to be sent if a reply is made) and that the ability to flag content to bring it to the attention of a moderator is also embedded into each post. Robin showed that by simply starting a discussion, users earn reputation points, and, finally, she pointed out the “Leave this community” link that is also conveniently surfaced.

John returned to the mic to say that “community discussion revolves around posting, replying, and liking,” which makes the assignment of points associated with a users’ reputation of great importance. John explained that reputation point assignment is “all built on SharePoint lists.” John said that all posts can be “marked as a question” (as opposed to just being fodder for discussion), and that the discussion starter is able to choose which response to mark as the best reply.

“Community membership is maintained in a SharePoint list,” John explained, and joining a community automatically follows that community. Leaving a community hides the member in the list, but maintains their reputation points just in case they decide to rejoin at a later date. In advance of Robin’s second demo, John then said that attention was paid to tools for community owners, particularly as regards site creation, look and feel, and setting up permissions.

Using a newly created community, Robin then demoed going into the Site settings to change the logo from the default, and to change the look by applying CSS for skinning the site, choosing from a range of out-of-the-box options. Customizing content, she then went into edit mode to make changes to the About page. She then added a calendar, using the Add an app feature in Site Contents via the Insert an App Part button on the Ribbon. Next, it was on to Community tools, where she added a new category for Best practices. Moving on to the Reputation settings page where achievement levels are set, Robin customized the level names and the amount of points required to attain each level. The Community settings page enables users to report content to a moderator. After making her changes to the newly created community, she clicked Share, at which point the community is “out there and ready to be discovered.”

John returned to say “we recommend that you create communities as the root site [collection]” rather than a sub-site, in part because you never know which communities are really going to blow up. Explaining the four types of communities that are available, John named them as being: Private, Closed (everyone can view, but only approved members can contribute), Open with Explicit Join (recommended), and Open without Explicit Join (users don’t have to join to participate, but there’s no auto-follow with this option).

John said that the Community tools are for owners and moderators only and that in the Rating settings, owners can enable or disable ratings, and can choose between stars or likes. John also said that there is no data loss when switching between stars and likes and that ratings are now explicitly stored in a SharePoint list. The community site owner sets the achievement level point scale that’s associated with all user activities. Reputation is stored “by community,” and is not an overall community participation score for users. Touching on the responsibilities of moderators (“they are the lifeblood of your community”), John said that their job is monitoring, facilitating, managing, and promoting content. His strong recommendation to community site owners is that they “take moderation seriously.”

Robin then provided a demo on moderation. In Community tools, she added a moderator badge, and assigned it to herself, at which point the icon appeared next to her name within the community. After a look at What’s hot, she marked a thread as Featured based on an abundance of activity. Checking for any reported posts, she investigated one accordingly, explaining that as a moderator, she can either edit or delete the original reply, or dismiss the report as unwarranted.

Regarding moderators, John then explained the value of: using the Promote option to elevate content as being Featured (only moderators can do this); marking responses as Best Reply; assigning badges (i.e., Expert) to deserving community members; and managing content. Regarding the management of content, John said that a best practice is to use workflows or email alerts to manage the inflow of discussion content.

Addressing the Report to moderator option, John said that reported content is stored in a hidden list and that the author of the reported content does not know that it was reported (the moderator, and only the moderator in addition to the reporting user, knows who reported it).

Speaking to an unspoken challenge of “where’s the innovation?” regarding the new features, John said that “the innovation is all about how we’ve integrated it into the broader SharePoint.” Some of the key integration points, he said, include: the Community Portal; search; and the People Card and Lync.

Robin’s final demo was of the Community Portal, and she showed that it presents all communities upfront and also supplies a search feature, which she demoed. From the search results page, on mouseover, users can see a question and the best reply directly in right rail. When tags are added in posts to discussions within a community site, they show up in the Newsfeed of all users following the tag (unless it’s a Private community), regardless of whether or not they’re not a member of the community.

Speaking to the Community Portal, John said that it shows all public communities across the enterprise, sorted by popularity, but that it can be scoped to exclude those communities which were created as sub-sites. The Community Portal is also security-trimmed, so it shows only those communities that the user has access to.

In summary, John said that “communities are best used for very large groups, [and] that’s where reputation becomes valuable.” As well, he said that “communities tend to be timeless,” in that they exist as employees come and go, and through reorgs and other organizational shakeups, so investing the time in their proper care and feeding will continue to pay dividends over time.

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