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Forums

Common questions covered here
Should remote teams use forums?
What are the best practices for using forums on remote teams?
Are forums better than email?

Web forums are web-based messaging groups where people write messages (typically called “posts”) in a hierarchical category structure organized by topics. Forums can be either public or private. Typically, public forums are for communicating with customers and private forums are for internal company communication. Examples of forum tools include Discourse, Flarum, and NodeBB.

Forum Advantages

  • Asynchronous. Forums can be used in an asynchronous manner to provide more static, broadcast-worthy information that people can refer to as needed. Forums can also work for brief discussions or to expand on clarifying questions. For example, a new employee can ask where to find important information in a forum, and get answers from their peers. From then on, all new hires can use that same post to get up to speed.

  • Predictable. Forums generally allow for information about a given topic to be updated in the same place. As new information is found, authors can expand or modify their questions or posting, keeping relevant information in the same place—especially compared to chat or text, where messages scroll up quickly over time and thus can be hard to track.

  • Open. Forums tend to be open by default, exposing everyone in a team or organization to the same exact information without the need for forwarding or use less transparent forms of sharing. This helps reduce the potential for miscommunication. When information is published openly in forums, it also becomes a historical record that can be searched, which improves the retention of institutional knowledge.

Forum Risks and Pitfalls

  • Lack of threading. Depending on the forum tool used, replies can become hard to follow if they can’t be threaded (or “nested.”). Threading shows individual responses to other people’s messages for a given topic, and helps maintain context as discussions of that topic evolve.

  • Potential for harm. Posting in spaces that are public or open by default can be intimidating or outright harmful, especially if there are people who don’t practice mindful communication.

  • Require moderation. Forums require active moderation so that conversations are productive, and so the forums remain collaborative spaces where everyone can feel comfortable sharing and asking questions.

  • Maintenance. Like all other collaborative tools, forums need someone to maintain them as the organization grows. Someone has to be explicitly in charge of managing topics and access to different groups in order for forums to work well.

When to Use Forums

Forums are best used for:

  • Asynchronous unidirectional broadcasting of messages and archival information (policies and the like that don’t change very often).

  • Asynchronous bidirectional Q&A.

Forum Tips

  • Online forum discussions are famous for being controversial, giving rise to the term “flamewar.” If you choose a forum as a channel for your team, consider setting and enforcing a code of conduct that discourages off-topic and denigrating comments.

  • Creating labels or topics like “newbie” for forum messages can reduce the anxiety of asking a question that may seem obvious, and help newer members of your company find information they’ll need when getting ramped up.

  • Moderating and participating in work-related forums takes time and effort. Consider rewarding and celebrating this behavior, and allocating dedicated moderation time for people who participate in the tasks of moderation and maintenance of workplace forums.

Further Reading About Forums

Mailing Lists

Mailing lists are a broadcast form of communication based on email. Generally, one email address broadcasts information to all members of the group, and replies are then threaded under the same subject. Some mailing lists keep historical records, giving new members access to past discussions.

Mailing List Advantages

  • Grouping. Mailing lists can be used to cluster individuals under one shared topic or group. For example, this may include grouping all members of a team, a project, a department, the board of directors, the entire company, or specific interests.

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