This article is for people wanting to deploy an internal question and answer community for employee knowledge sharing. Enterprise Q&A communities are growing in popularity as companies are replacing forums, bulletin boards, and mailing lists with a more natural question and answer format popularized by sites like Quora and Stack Overflow. Imagine having a self-governing community of engaged employees answering each others’ questions, solving problems, and sharing new ideas! Launching a Q&A community will take some planning on your part, but the rewards of mass adoption are great.

After working with a number of Atlassian customers who have deployed Confluence Questions and launching it internally at Atlassian, we’ve identified five key steps for success:

Step 1 – Seed your Q&A site with questions

We’re constantly surprised by the different questions that employees ask and answer every day at Atlassian. You can never anticipate every question and topic people will create, but it helps to get the ball rolling by creating a few “seed” questions and topics. This step is crucial because it gives the first visitors to your site an idea of the kinds of questions and topics that will be discussed. These initial questions will set the tone for future questions so you’ll want to make sure they’re well formed, use good grammar, and represent the kinds of questions you want people to ask. Ask yourself things like, “Do I want people to only ask questions with an explicit answer, or do I want them to ask open-ended questions that provoke interesting dialog?” The first questions in the system will influence the kinds of questions that are asked in the future.

To get you started, Confluence Questions ships with a few sample questions that an administrator can choose to display the first time he or she logs in. These questions should help you get started, but it’s better if you also think about your target audience and the kinds of questions they’re likely to ask. To find question ideas you can:

  • Look through your inbox to see what kind of questions people are asking you in email
  • Look at the questions people send you via instant message
  • Think about what questions people ask you in person

Also, consider asking open-ended questions like, “what name should we give to product X?” or “What’s the best place to eat lunch around here?” You can even ask, “What do you think of this new Confluence Questions site? Do you think it will be useful?” Questions like these can get people engaged and bring out a lot of good answers and comments.

Step 2 – Recruit internal experts

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Don’t take it entirely upon yourself to roll out your company Q&A community. Identify a handful of fellow employees who you consider to be an expert in a given area (e.g. Java, Confluence, iOS, Human Resources, etc.), and are invested in the success of Confluence Questions. Ask these folks to help you seed the community with a few questions and answers of their own, since they’ll probably have a few at the ready that they get asked all the time. People who deal with repeated questions stand to reclaim a lot of time if a company-wide adoption of a Q&A tool occurs.

It’s also important that you ask them to watch any topics that they’re an expert in so that they get notified of any future questions that get asked in that topic. You could also encourage them to watch all questions so they can participate as much as possible; In the early days there shouldn’t bee too many questions so they’re not likely to receive an overwhelming number of emails.

Step 3 – Announce your Q&A community

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Now that you’ve seeded your Confluence Questions site with a few good questions and you have a few experts watching topics, you’re ready to promote your Confluence Questions site to a broader audience. Choose whatever medium you find the most effective for reaching your audience, whether it’s an internal email list, a blog post, or wiki page. You’ll also want to make sure everyone has access first.

Here is an example of an announcement used by one of our leading enterprise customers:

Subject: Introducing… Confluence Questions!

Do you ever have questions at work that you ask a coworker via email, IM, or a quick stop by their desk? How often is the question and answer something from which your fellow employees could benefit?  Chances are that happens pretty often. Now, when you log into Confluence you’ll see a “Questions” menu item on the header and Q&A results when you search!

Confluence Questions is a question-and-answer community that will allow all employees to effectively leverage the “wisdom of the crowd” for sharing internal knowledge.  We expect that it will allow a great majority of questions to be answered more efficiently and effectively, and that employee productivity will increase dramatically as the knowledgebase grows.

Confluence Questions are grouped by topic and, as answers are given and accepted, “experts” emerge. Everyone can see who the experts are for each topic and across the entire site. Even better, Confluence Questions is simply an add-on to Confluence. So, Q&A hits that match your searches will show up alongside other content already in Confluence.

If you have an questions, just ask your question in the “Confluence” topic at our Confluence Questions site. Additional information about Confluence Questions may be found by visiting the Atlassian Documentation for Confluence Questions.

Consider promoting your site internally in other creative ways with posters, fliers or other physical items around the office.  Have fun with it!

Step 4 – Make sure questions get answered

Once your Q&A community is launched, you’ll want to nurture and feed it until you see a consistent number of questions and answers being added every week. Post launch is the most crucial phase because it can either take off or fizzle out. First and foremost, make sure that any question that gets asked has an answer. You want your “askers” to have a positive experience so that they keep coming back. Since you’re already watching all new questions (see above) you’ll know of any new questions that get asked.

If you see that a question hasn’t been answered after 24 hours (Confluence Questions gives you a list of unanswered questions), then either try and answer the question yourself, or share it with someone who may know the answer. You can use the “share” feature in Confluence Questions to directly prompt someone to answer a question that you don’t know the answer to. You can also @mention a potential expert when answering a question to increase the chances of getting an answer. Your matchmaker duties will wane over time as adoption increases.

Step 5 – Reinforce good behavior

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After you launch you’ll want to continue reinforcing Confluence Questions as the place to ask and answer questions. You may find that people still continue asking questions over instant messaging, email, and all the old places they’re used to asking questions. This is natural – old habits that are hard to break. Your job is to gently reinforce Confluence Questions as the place to ask and answer questions. If someone asks you a question that should really be asked in Confluence Questions, politely redirect that person to ask his question in Confluence Questions. Then answer his question through Confluence Questions so that other people can benefit from the answer. You might have to do this a couple times but, over time, you’ll see the questions shift over to Confluence Questions.

To summarize

Rolling out an internal Q&A community takes a little bit of planning on the part of an administrator or internal champion. By following the five steps outlined here, you’ll put your company on the right track for achieving broad-scale adoption.

  1. Before launching, seed your Confluence Questions site with sample questions and topics. Make sure the sample questions are relevant to your community and representative of the kinds of questions you expect others to ask.
  2. Recruit internal experts to also seed your site with sample questions and answers, and watch topics so that they can answer questions posted to those topics.
  3. Promote your Q&A community to the intended audience via email or internal blog. Use the sample email as a template and get creative with your own ideas.
  4. Immediately after launch, make sure that every question gets answered by @mentioning potential experts or sharing unanswered questions with them.
  5. Reinforce good behaviour by redirecting people asking questions over IM, email or in person to post their questions to your Q&A community.

Time to share your ideas

These are some of the techniques we’ve found to be successful for our customers and for our employees. By no means is this an exhaustive list. We’d love to hear your questions and ideas. Have you tried rolling out an internal Q&A Community? What did you find to be the most and least effective?