Building Community On Our Web Sites
A powerful advantage of the Internet is that it is an electronic common ground - a place where those who share related interests can meet to exchange information and discuss issues. These virtual meeting places are increasingly referred to as communities of practice, and the concept of the Internet as a Community on the Web is especially hot right now. Transportation professionals rely on each other for the information they need to address common issues in their work. Because they're geographically dispersed, building online FHWA communities of practice is an extremely effective way for FHWA staff and their transportation partners to stay in touch with each other - and to keep the information flowing.
Any Internet community takes the shape and form that meets the needs of its members. For example, at a recent E-Gov meeting in Washington, D.C., Dr. Andrew Cohill, director of Blacksburg Electronic Village (http://www.bev.net), discussed how he and his team developed, grew, and continued to nurture a virtual Blacksburg community. Blacksburg, Va., a rural town of 36,000, is home to the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). The Blacksburg electronic village is a project that developed a community-wide network that gave citizens online access to local government and health and social services agencies, businesses and other economic interests, civic and volunteer groups, and local schools and higher education facilities.
The online experiment has proved to be very popular and the people of Blacksburg use the Internet to access and exchange information - everything from e-mail, to paying utility bills, to voicing opinions on government procedures and programs. The general consensus is that the people of Blacksburg feel more connected to their community.
This Blacksburg experience is a local virtual community of diverse interests that correlates nicely with an online community of nationally - sometimes globally - dispersed transportation professionals who share a common interest. Whether it's a program, a material, technology, or technology transfer, the Internet is an effective, timely medium where information providers and information seekers can gather to solve problems. The immediacy of Internet technology affords community members the just-in-time knowledge that can enhance productivity just as just-in-time management systems revolutionized manufacturing.
However, building a productive community of practice is more challenging than it may sound. The caveat of a successful community of practice, one based on sharing knowledge, is that only providing an Internet site, a home page, and a few links does not guarantee that people will find it or use it. The worthwhile community depends on people, the information they create, and the use to which it can be applied.
And information changes. As surprising as it may seem, a site that was last updated in December 1998 is out of date, and out of touch. Maintenance is important - whether it's keeping the streets clean and repaired or ensuring that content on a Web site is fresh and appropriate. Organizations that build effective communities are those willing to dedicate time and staff to develop, maintain, and nurture them.
FHWA's Rumble Strips Community of Practice sets the stage for other FHWA communities of practice, and its success has been rewarding. The site continues to attract professionals throughout the national and international transportation community and it will serve as a model for other communities that the FHWA is currently pursuing. This next generation of FHWA community-of-practice Web sites is designed to be even more community-minded and client-focused. E-mail, discussion forums, and ask-the-expert sections will offer more options for customer interaction. This is important because each of us is unique in the way that we gain and use information, which underscores the need for offering both private (ask-the-expert) and public (discussion forums) communication choices for community members.
To see the Rumble Strips community of practice in action, point your browser to http://mchs.fhwa.dot.gov/rumblestrips
David Dubov is an employee of Avalon Integrated Services Corp. Prior to his work there, he was Web master for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and designed, developed, built, and implemented the successful Mars Pathfinder Web site, which reached more than 56 million people around the world.