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DNN Social: why you should take note

In this blog post I intend to explore the potential of DNN Social. This is an umbrella term for the bits and pieces in the framework that allow users to interact with each other reminiscent of Facebook. It includes modules/APIs called “messaging”, “journal” and “groups” among others. Most of DNN Social can be traced back to Active Social, a module developed by a company called Active Modules, that was acquired by DNN Corp in early 2011.

Much has been made of DotNetNuke’s new “social” capabilities, since the first release of these in version 6.2. And quite rightly so. The deep integration of what used to be a set of third party components into the framework have now given us a solution that has a great deal of potential. DNN Corp, of course, are the makers of the platform and make their money selling a professional version to bigger, more demanding clients. Now, the acquisition of Active Modules and the subsequent embedding of their “Active Social” product into DNN led to some head scratching in the community as Active Social could be perceived as a typical “community” component (and happily it was rolled out in the Community Edition of the platform). How does that fit with “business”? In the keynote address of Navin Nagiah at DNN World 2012, I got a taste for how this is being positioned. Announcing “Nebula”, the more social bits for Q1 2013, the message was “this will help you break down barriers between your organization and your customers”. And that’s a good point. Who wouldn’t want to do that? I’m pretty sure the solution will fit nicely into the C2C and B2C communication niche.

But it struck me that this is not what I’d have put at the forefront. Partly because I felt it addressed a limited segment of the product making industry (would Exxon look for interactions with customers on how their fuel is used?). But more importantly because I felt that somehow an even bigger goal was left unmentioned. The focus on B2C communication is certainly one way of looking at the value of DNN Social. Understand your customers and learn how to increase the value you can deliver to them. But I think there is more to be gained from DNN Social for business. Much more. And with real value. But allow me to digress into the nebulous realm of “knowledge management” before I get there. A field I got familiar with in the early 2000s when I used to work at the Telematica Instituut (now Novay) in Enschede, Holland. This is a research institute founded by the Dutch government with the aim of spurring ICT research in Dutch business. The institute develops and leads projects that combine private enterprise with universities to stimulate knowledge sharing and spurn innovation. Specifically I have been involved in the fields of Computer Supported Collaborative Work (CSCW) and Knowledge Management (KM).

Knowledge Management

The field of knowledge management came to the fore in the early nineties. In a seminal book, Japanese authors Nonaka and Takeuchi illustrated how, in their view, knowledge was fostered and transferred in Japanese industry. They based their ideas of the concept of “Tacit” knowledge by Hungarian philosopher Michael Polanyi, who claimed that some knowledge doesn’t lend itself to be verbalized and all our explicit (i.e. easily expressed) knowledge is grounded in this tacit knowledge. Nonaka and Takeuchi used a quadrant to show how knowledge was made explicit and turned implicit again in an ever on-going spiral of knowledge creation:


No publication on knowledge management is complete without this illustration. It underlies most thinking in this field. Nonaka and Takeuchi were addressing a business audience at the time. The central tenet of their publication: knowledge is as important a production factor as capital and brute labour (i.e. muscle) and should be managed as such. Well, this led to a whole cottage industry around this theme. Interestingly enough (and that which has always fascinated me in this field), this seemed to play out on the edge of technology and cognitive science. And the two sides don’t always play nice together. In my time in this field the “hard” technologists would accuse the “soft” social scientists of waffling while not bringing concrete (read: measurable) results and the softies would argue that the nerds were missing the point entirely. Anyway … that’s behind me now. Suffice to say that “just throwing technology” at a problem is generally not the way to get results. But equally that technology has a significant role to play in improving the sharing of knowledge.

We are now well over 20 years into this field and I’m sure Nonaka and Takeuchi (or any of us for that matter) could not have dreamt of how the world has evolved since that time. What has been dubbed as “Web 2.0” has given researchers in knowledge management a very exciting decade. From blogging to microblogging, from Twitter to Facebook, from web to mobile. We have had a very exciting ride. And the doomsayers who believed we’d interact less with each other socially as the web began to consume our lives, have been firmly disproved. We’ve augmented our life with social media, not replaced it. And researchers have been having a field day with the data to come out of this. Back when I was working in this field, for instance, fellow researchers were looking at how blogging was transforming the way we work. Obviously, auto-publishing was having an impact not only in our private lives, but equally in corporate knowledge management. And it sent shivers down the spines of top management who now feared all the company’s secrets would be blogged, tweeted, etc.

Which bring me to the point of secrecy. Although an organization has a vested interest in having employees interacting and sharing knowledge, they have a natural tendency to be wary of any technology that may facilitate this for fear of security breaches or other liabilities. There is a trade-off between secrecy and the free flow of knowledge. And companies that take a hard line on information security (e.g. sharing on “need-to-know” basis) tend to suffer in terms of knowledge sharing. It’s not rocket science. But let’s not be dogmatic about this. Neither one must completely trump the other. There must be some attainable balance in this. And this is where I think the new DNN has a role to play.

Peripheral awareness

Back to technology (after all, we are here in the business of creating a kick-ass web platform). Microsoft and others have recognized the “social” trend, but as so often they’re fashionably late to the party. Recently, they’ve bought Skype and they’re hammering away at the next version of their “Lync” corporate communication platform. But despite all the new toys, people will probably remain glued to Blogger, Twitter and Facebook. And not just for personal stuff. You don’t really think that we all just tweet about what we’re eating today, right? A lot of us publicise what we’re working on on a daily basis. And we walk a fine line between our desire to share and our boss’ desire for us to “shut up and get on with it”. I often see posts along the lines of “working on an exciting new site for a fortune 500 company”. Intentionally vague. But giving me some “peripheral awareness” of what this person is up to.

Peripheral awareness is knowing what your colleagues/friends/etc are doing without specifically paying attention. It is like knowing that it’s raining without having stared outside and thought: “hey, it’s raining”. Similarly we consume a huge number of tweets each day which we don’t internalize. Instead we filter them to look for what we find interesting. But we may have glanced over that tweet of that friend about how awesome Rome is. So he’s in Rome. On holiday? Business? Whatever. We move on. But when at night the news has a segment on riots in Rome in reaction to the government’s new austerity measures, we remember our friend is there. Is this important? Maybe. If the friend is a colleague we may realize she is out of the office. Or that he is visiting some conference he tweeted about a Month earlier. The fact is we store a lot of stuff and it gets combined at the most creative moments. Social media (microblogging, Foursquare, etc) augment our peripheral awareness. Like having a Head Up Display in our head, it adds to our understanding of our world.

Let’s look at an example. One of my most treasured clients is an architectural firm. An internationally acclaimed office employing between 50 and 100. Big enough for an intranet to have some real benefits. Architecture is a very interesting business. It combines a multitude of disciplines that work toward a narrowly defined, common goal. In larger firms like this, you’ll typically see specialists working alongside generalists to make this happen. Within the walls of the office you can have specialists such as structural engineers, interior designers, etc. But also eco-friendly building experts and other, more fringe type disciplines. Here I wish to highlight the example of a guy who knows everything about materials. He knows that if you want a roof tile with specifications x, you’d better have a look at this or that company’s product line. And he keeps himself informed by keeping in tune with what’s coming out. These people are invaluable in the organization. Once settled into their niche a certain pride and geekiness kicks in. They become the go-to person. One of his wishes was to not only be able to record his discoveries, but also the ability to share what he knew for the whole organization to see. He now uses a blog to write about new products coming out. What I want to illustrate is that the blog, although not every member of the office may read everything he has to say, is part of the peripheral awareness of the whole office. People know who to ask and may even be inspired by one of his new discoveries and use it in their project. The blog is the oil in the machine. It spurns creativity and innovation. But we could do even better, in my opinion, by providing a more interactive layer over this. And this is what I think DNN is now bringing forward with DNN Social. The ability to form a group could be used to create a group around materials. The journal of this group would contain all interactions within this group as well as activity around the blog. The comments of the blog can now hook into the general journal mechanism and others will have a peripheral awareness of activity in the blog. And who knows what exciting new module comes next that leverages this API.

Communities of practice

Another important aspect of social media is that it gives us a sense of belonging. The interactions build a sense of community. This brings me to the next important aspect of the social bits: grouping. As sponges we (try to) absorb what our devices (laptops, tablets, phones) pump toward us. In so doing the source of the information items is significant. Is it family? Work? One of my running buddies? Some crazed lunatic who’ll say anything to get attention? And we group these sources. It allows us to more easily channel information and to properly attach value. Back in the early days of knowledge management, Swiss scientist Etienne Wenger came up with the notion of “Communities of Practice” (or CoP in short). These are groups with a common interest that have either been created or have evolved naturally and where people share information and experiences and have an opportunity to develop personally and professionally. Our DNN community is an example of such a CoP. Note that CoPs are not about tools. It is about group learning. But certain technical tools have greatly propelled some of these groups forward. We could imagine the materials guy from the earlier example being part of a CoP that is not part of the office, but lives outside it. The point is: we think in groups when dealing with the daily information deluge. And for a tool to be useful it must be able to grasp that concept (e.g. why does Skype not offer me the ability to group contacts and control my visibility to each?). One thing I’d look for in the example above, is for the materials expertise group to be able to hook into a wider CoP. An idea for a new module, maybe?

An exciting opportunity

So now to the meat of my argument. The new social bits of DNN are the seeds of a beautiful and bright future for the framework as we can now bring this as a knowledge management tool set to our clients. The ability to create communities through groups, the ability to offer microblogging in an enclosed environment, these are valuable assets for someone who is looking for ways to get people interacting and sharing knowledge. Obviously you need to keep in mind that it’s not sufficient to just put it out there. You need a clear strategy to get where you want to go. Help setting up groups. Maybe opening some of it up to the external world. And probably some non-technical interventions (rewarding those that contribute for instance). But keep this in mind: the sky’s the limit as we have a very extensible framework and you can tweak this any way you want. Facebook has apps. But we have a complete Facebook app in our hands!

More reading

Nonaka, I. and Takeuchi, H. (1995) The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation. Oxford University Press

Other publications of Novay on Knowledge Management:

Blogs by friends of mine on Knowledge Management: Croeso and Mathemagenic

An example of the tension between security and knowledge sharing at Nasa: Balancing Security and Knowledge Sharing (PDF)

The links in the text point mostly to Wikipedia articles. Those links are also great starting places for exploring the field of Knowledge Management.


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