Published: September 4th, 2003

Professional Perspectives

The “any” technologies – anyone, anywhere, anytime – make it possible to respond (almost) instantly. Urgent concerns can be addressed in (near) real time. The problem is that everyone believes their concerns are urgent. As a result, more and more people expect an instant response.

This is the best explanation I have seen for the growing business use of instant messaging (IM). But I’m not all that happy with IM, certainly not when used to discuss important matters. It encourages a shoot-from-the-hip style, discouraging the thoughtful response.

A reflective answer will take time to develop, especially if it is to be the response from a group of stakeholders. IM isn’t the right tool. A face-to-face meeting works, but it can take weeks to schedule a stakeholder meeting. And travel costs can be high.

Teleconferences are a way to rapidly and inexpensively call a meeting of diverse participants. There’s zero travel time and people can join the teleconference from anywhere. Fortunately, a teleconference doesn’t generate the same emotional demand for instant response that I experience with IM. But even the best teleconference doesn’t really encourage thoughtful responses.

There is an online alternative. A discussion board gives the participants time to think before responding, yet allows a rapid response when everyone sees the matter as urgent. It automatically builds an historical record, allowing new participants to quickly come up to speed.

My approach to launching a discussion board was to search for a software package that would run on a site I controlled, was easy to install, provided the functionality I wanted, and came at a modest cost. When I went to look, there were many available software packages.

After some initial frustrating experiences, I discovered Invision Power Board ( www.invisionboard.com). It has readable documentation and a simple installation process. The learning curve is gentle, with extra effort promising extra benefits. The product’s business model is both interesting and appealing. (My only connection is as a user of the product.)

It’s not open source and it’s not free, but it is available for unlimited free trial use. There is a modest annual fee for registration. This entitles registrants to higher priority support and free add-in modules. The real money for the company comes from providing associated services, from hosting to troubleshooting to custom features.

The Board runs in any current PHP and MySQL environment. Installation needs only FTP access to the Web site. Once the files are in place, everything else is done through a browser interface. With only a modest effort I was able to establish my first discussion board.

The board give me the ability to control who is allowed to do what. One discussion I set up requires that everyone register – a valid email address must be provided. Access is restricted to those who know the password. And the size of posted files is limited to 256 KB. This provides a useful, but controlled, forum for a discussion between stakeholders. It was set up in minutes, and puts only a modest load on the server.

The technology is available and the price is right. We’re still working on the social rules that should be best used to govern participation. But with a shared sense of urgency, rapid progress is possible. And the technology doesn’t force an instant response – thoughtful discussion is encouraged. It’s an approach that more professionals should consider.

Fabian is a senior management and systems consultant in Toronto. He can be reached at robert@fabian.ca.