Christoph Treude

Effective Communication of Software Development Knowledge Through Community Portals

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Effective management and exchange of knowledge is key in every software organization. Although various forms of documentation exist, software projects encounter many knowledge management challenges: How should knowledge be distributed? How should knowledge be kept up to date? How should feedback be solicited? How should knowledge be organized for easy access?

There is no roadmap for what kind of information is best presented in a given artifact and new forms of documentation, such as wikis and blogs, have evolved. Unlike more formal mechanisms, wikis and blogs are easy to create and maintain. However, wikis and blogs do not offer the same authoritativeness that comes with traditional documentation, and they can become outdated and less concise over time. While the informality of a wiki page or blog is sometimes enough, users often expect reviewed technical articles.

One mechanism that brings various communication channels together is the use of web or community portals. Web portals are not just used in software communities, but are essential to companies, such as Amazon.com, eBay or TripAdvisor, where they enable the development of communities around products. Similarly, many of today’s software projects wish to solicit feedback and input from a broader community of users, beta-testers, and stakeholders. Examples of community portals in software organizations include Microsoft’s MSDN or IBM’s Jazz.

In a paper that Peggy and I will present at ESEC/FSE 2011 in Szeged, Hungary, we report on an empirical study of the community portal for IBM’s Jazz: jazz.net. Using grounded theory, we developed a model that characterizes documentation artifacts in a community portal along the following eight dimensions:

In our study, we focused on four kinds of artifacts: the official product documentation accessible through the web and the product help menus, technical articles available in the jazz.net library, the Jazz team blog, and the team wiki.

These are some of our main findings:

One of the goals of our research is to provide advice to managers and developers on how to effectively use a community portal. Based on the findings from our study, we make the following recommendations:

A pre-print of the paper is available here
(© ACM, 2011. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version will be published in the Proceedings of the European Software Engineering Conference and the ACM SIGSOFT Symposium on the Foundations of Software Engineering (ESEC/FSE) 2011.)

This is the abstract of the paper:

Knowledge management plays an important role in many software organizations. Knowledge can be captured and distributed using a variety of media, including traditional help files and manuals, videos, technical articles, wikis, and blogs. In recent years, web-based community portals have emerged as an important mechanism for combining various communication channels. However, there is little advice on how they can be effectively deployed in a software project.

In this paper, we present a first study of a community portal used by a closed source software project. Using grounded theory, we develop a model that characterizes documentation artifacts along several dimensions, such as content type, intended audience, feedback options, and review mechanisms. Our findings lead to actionable advice for industry by articulating the benefits and possible shortcomings of the various communication channels in a knowledge-sharing portal. We conclude by suggesting future research on the increasing adoption of community portals in software engineering projects.

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