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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Discussion Forums for Knowledge Sharing at Capital City Bank

Looking at Capital City Bank from the outside, I wouldn’t have expected to find a great example of social learning inside. 

They are a solid, conservative bank. They have more than 1,100 associates spread out across Florida, Georgia and Alabama.  I recently had a great conversation with Becky Barch, a performance consultant at the Bank, about her smart application of discussion forum software from ElementK.

The forum is targeted to a small group – loan/lending assistants. There are roughly 22 people in that role in at Capital City Bank. Because loans can be fairly complex and unique, there were continual questions that came up. One person had become the “defacto associate help desk”. This individual ended up fielding all of the calls.


Becky turned around and used a discussion forum to make the situation better. The same associate who received and handled the questions before now gets the question as a discussion item and responds in the forum. They also have enlisted another associate to help field questions. And, in fact, other lending assistants will jump in with answers as well. Because the answers are stored in the discussion forum, they can be seen by everyone and can later be searched.

Questions come up on all kinds of topics. A recent topic was “Fees for Department of Motor Vehicles.” These fees vary depending on the county and there wasn’t an obvious place to find the information. So, various people contributed links and attached PDFs with the information that was needed.

They are now using the discussion forum as part of training initiatives. As they are rolling out a new escrow initiative, they’ve had webinars that were supported by Q&A in the forum. Because lending assistants are familiar with the forum, they’ve found this to be an effective pattern.

How Did They Get There?

One of the things I’ve found from doing many presentations on social/informal/eLearning 2.0 is there will be lots of activity when I get to the challenges when using this kind of approach. I spent quite a bit of time discussing how Becky made this happen . And I should point out that Becky makes all of this seem quite simple. I had to drag most of this information out of her.

First, the Bank has a bit of experience from the very top with social media. They have an internal message board used by the CEO of the Bank called “Bill’s Blog.” Anyone can ask a question and various associates would formulate an answer post. If needed an “official” or correct answer, it would be highlighted. The idea was to use this as a tool to learn and get questions answered. It has has been successful in the Bank and certainly signals openness to using social media.

However, I think the real story here is more around Becky’s background, particularly the first course that she took at Florida State University (FSU) from Professor Jeong (an expert in discussion forums for learning). Not surprisingly given Dr. Jeong’s background, this course heavily leveraged peer discussion through discussion forums. Becky said she was wondering where the professor was in all of this for a long time. She expected more involvement. However, as the course progressed and the concepts of social learning and self-reflection as part of the learning process emerged, she saw the beauty in what Dr. Jong had done. He had set up a great environment and taught them how to engage. He provided very specific instructions and guidance, and provided plenty of support. It took a while, but Becky and the other students really came to understand that kind of learning.

So, when Becky saw this situation, it was obvious that a discussion forum could work. And, certainly the subject matter expert, she was happy the work she was doing would reach more than one person at a time. She knew that much support would be needed, as the company definitely has an e-mail and phone culture. She set up sample questions with answers to provide context and initial categories for the questions. She supported the users and the subject matter expert as they began using the system. Of course, given the culture, most of the users have the system setup so they get e-mail notifications from the discussion forum.

Over time, they are beginning to establish a culture where many associates are contributing information. Initially, another lending assistant was set up with permission to post answers to help out the subject matter expert. But that changed associates’ perspectives on the site and more associates are getting comfortable posting answers, suggestions, etc. Becky ensured a safe and positive environment to make sure that people feel comfortable asking and answering questions.

I was certainly curious about how Becky overcame the obstacle of potential risk/liability in a heavily regulated field like lending. She didn’t see it as that much of an issue. Lending assistants were already familiar with sending questions via e-mail and documenting loans. These folks were knowledgeable about issues related to fair lending. It was unlikely there would be an issue and if one arose, they would follow standard procedures that would have been executed via e-mail in the past. The system actually has an advantage in that respect since users can flag potential issues in the system. But so far, this has not been the case.

Lessons Learned and Next Steps

Becky has found other groups want to adopt this same kind of approach. She’s slowly deciding on how she will tackle these.

Becky discovered how important it is to know the boundaries of the community If you want this to be a safe environment, you have to know who is in or out. Who has access to the information? They’ve had some challenges with more people have wanting access to the forums as they see value in the information. But, does that violate the safety of being able to ask anything in a safe environment?

We also had an interesting discussion about what happens when management asks for access. Obviously, you can’t say no. But how do you provide access without violating the spirit of the group? This hasn’t been a problem at the Bank, but it is an interesting issue. Becky suggested providing temporary access to those who would not normally have access so they can see how the tool is being used without violating the user’s trust.

Becky said forwarding the future she will have more up-front discussion about who will and won’t have access. In particular, asking the question, “Who else do you see who would benefit from this?”

Final Thought

One thing that really struck me about my conversations with Becky is how obvious she made all of this sound. But it was only obvious after her experience at FSU. It was obvious to her when she saw what was currently happening. It was obvious how she could support the lending assistants with detailed help / guidance. It’s obvious to Becky.

I’m pretty sure it would not have been obvious to a lot of other people. And I’m not quite sure how to make this obvious, but I’m thinking about it. Becky’s suggestion is that everyone should participate in a 100% online course with a discussion forum and someone there who knows how to moderate it.

Becky – thanks for a great conversation and sharing with me/us!

Do you have a case study for me?

I'm hoping to do a lot of case studies over the next 6-12 months looking at interesting examples of the use of social/informal/web 2.0 learning.  If you have an example, please drop me an email:


Anonymous said...

This is a great idea and I have been trying to figure out how to make it work at our company for a long time. The main issues are security and having resources to monitor for accuracy. It is very helpful to have this success story!

V Yonkers said...

The important thing here (and this is panning out in my research) is the culture of using forums coming from the top.

I'm sorry, but if the top management is not on board, no one will be.

Joe Deegan said...

I'll come right out and admit it. I am struggling to achieve what Becky has done at Capital City Bank. I've come to the harsh realization that not everybody catches on to web 2.0 like my fellow tweeps and blog followers. In my case, I am trying to reduce tech support emails/phone calls by implementing the use of forums. I'm really having to twist arms to get people to use the forums rather than shooting off an email or phone call. I'd be curious to know how long it took until Becky's forum reached the tipping point and had replaced the emails and phone calls. I am slowly making progress but it is a hard fought battle. This post has encouraged me to keep fighting the fight and some day they will see the light of web 2.0

Tony Karrer said...

Joe - I'm glad you said that. I think that a lot of people struggle with this. I'll ask Becky to weigh in with her thoughts, but the keys from what I remember:

1. This was the only way that the SME would respond.

2. Guidance and coaching was provided to people involved.

I'm sure there's a lot more to the answer for Becky and more broadly. I personally don't feel I'm good at predicting what will get uptake and what won't.

Becky Barch said...

Hi Joe,

Okay… I’ll share too. As Joe stated, not everybody catches on to web 2.0 or chooses to even give it a try. Some of the success depends on the audience you are trying to engage. In my previous employ, the CEO wanted to use web 2.0 tools so the company could collaborate, share and capture knowledge.

This was my first attempt and it was not as successful as this one. I attribute my earlier struggles to several things 1) an audience that was resistant to technology 2) a non-specific plan of use and job to be done. 3) not having a moderator or SME.

This time the audience saw the value in using the tool and was willing to give the technology a try. One of our users stated that “They love being able to ask questions and get answers from others who do the same thing I do”.

We’ve been using the forum since June 2009. What did I do differently? This time I had the opportunity to provide guidance and coaching in the use of the tools because they wanted to try it.

A strategy that Lisa (the moderator) and I have implemented is to take the information that came in from other forms of communication through “the emails and phone calls” and seed the discussion forum. Then when she receives repeat inquiries she directs the user to the discussion forum for the answer rather than providing it directly through the media it was received in. Lisa also makes it a practice to answer the discussion board more quickly than other modes of communication.

I’m glad that the post has encouraged you and I hope that it helps you reach your tipping point. Keep fighting the fight – it is worth the effort!