We have all felt the pull of game play mechanics in software. You might be addicted to Angry Birds, Farmville, Foursquare or Mafia Wars? Or, maybe like me, you felt compelled to ski a couple extra runs this year thanks to the Epic Mix from Vail Associates. In either case, the achievement leveling and badging associated with the “gamification” of this software has most likely had some impact on your behavior.

Nowhere have I seen these techniques applied to software like I have experienced in StackExchange, a network of Q&A sites founded by Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky. Most of my experience is with the Project Management StackExchange, but there are 51 public sites and over 50 other domains emerging. Thanks to smart work by the StackExchange team, the leveling and badging mechanics are used to pull you into an ownership position with the community. As you earn reputation points, you are granted more privileges on the site. This progressive enablement of editing, voting, chatting and commenting capabilities seems perfectly matched with my gaining experience of the culture and ethics of the site. The more I use the site, the more I find myself developing a real sense of ownership and responsibility to the community. This is simply beautiful software for building a community of experts.

My positive experience with StackExchange has been echoed by a bunch of others at Rally. In fact, after playing with site back in March, Rally decided to partner with StackExchange to help share the knowledge from our inaugural RallyON Conference. Specifically, we started working with the project management and programers sites, as they have good coverage of agile, lean software, scrum, kanban, test-driven development, and continuous integration topics.

I encourage you follow our lead and try out StackExchange personally and with your agile teams. I think you will find it to be a great community for capturing and sharing knowledge on agile. Don’t miss Jean’s recent post, “Life in the StackExchange Lane,” to hear about her first month with the site.

Click to register for the webinar- Defining Done

For us, StackExchange is quickly becoming an indispensable community building toollet me tell you the story and why we are going to use it to clear questions for the next event in our agile webinar series! To get started, please see this example question on pm.stackexchange.com – “How do you define “Done” on a project?” To see how the StackExchange community is preparing for this experiment, you can view the question - “Growing the site with a new experiment” in the meta section of pm.stackexchange.com.

To understand the rational for all this work I want to explore three areas: First, recognizing what was not working for us in our community;  Second, appreciating the stack overflow approach behind StackExchange; Third, comparing and contrasting StackExchange with other Q&A sites.

It’s hard to build a general community, but we need to

Since 2004, we have been a provider of agile solutions through the combination of products and services. For our customers, Rally and its partners deliver large and sustainable gains in software development time-to-market, quality and productivity as well as increasing the sense of purpose and joy on teams. To increase the impact of agile for our users who are spread arcross 100 countries, we launched a social community in 2006; Agile Commons.

Agile Commons provided an open platform to encourage dialogue and discussions with our users and others in the community. Of course there are many places on the Internet to have these general discussions. As a result, the parts of Agile Commons that really took off were those more closely associated with Rally specific content. We just did not have enough traffic to clear the questions with well thought out answers that really covered a problem space. As a result, Agile Commons has morphed into an open commons primarily for Rally customers and users. In addition, the general Agile community discussion has continued to splinter across countless blogs (see the top 200 agile blog list – we are #12!), email lists, and twitter. Due to this splintering, it is really hard to quickly find good, well shaped answers to common agile questions.

This problem has been plaguing the agile community for years and finally boiled to the surface at the 10 year agile gathering in Snowbird this year. In that meeting the following four items were cited as critical steps to keep the community growing for the next 10 years:

  • Demand Technical Excellence
  • Promote Individual Change and Lead Organizational Change
  • Organize Knowledge and Improve Education
  • Maximize Value Creation Across the Entire Process

You can read more about the 10 years agile gathering in my February post as well as the many sites and attendees that I reference. I think the industry is ready to address this problem. Now what is the solution?

StackOverflow thinking

I have been passionate about building and sharing knowledge since I was first introduced to web technology via Mosiac in 1994; however, I would not call myself a knowledge management expert. I have continued to dip in and out of this space but being introduced to David Snowden’s work at the Lean Conference in 2010 has been a significant catalyst in my thinking and passion on social and knowledge management. His work has stoked my fire around this problem and solution space. David’s talks and the morphing of Agile Commons have driven my pursuit of a great space to manage agile knowledge in an open manner. My research took me through:

It was StackExchange that stood out to me as the clear winner for managing what Snowden calls ordered knowledge. StackExchange’s Q&A format is truly amazing, it is first a community of experts and second a well gardened knowledge management system. See the PM StackExchange ABOUT post to understand how it is a combination of four great technologies.

If you have not tried stackexhange, jump into pm.stackexchange.com and try entering any project management question you can think of, including anything agile. As you type, you should see a list of related questions based on the keywords in your question. If you do not see your question, please enter it using these simple guidelines and make sure to use tags like agile, scrum, kanban, or TDD. The community will help you shape it into something that will get a good spectrum of answers in a matter of a week. Even in beta the PM StackExchange includes the following site stats:

I don’t care what yahoo group or wiki you are on in our community, it’s difficult find that kind of diverse network to help you with your day to day questions. As I noted, the site is still in public beta. My guess is by 2012, this community will have quadrupled.

Problems with other Q&A sites

This post is about Stackexchange, but, as I mentioned above, there are other solutions for managing a body of knowledge like this. I found a number of short-comings in those communities:

  • There is not enough people in community to clear the answer broadly and quickly – too small a sample
  • There is only a certain clique of people in a community that provides too much of a myopic answer – 1 right way
  • There is focus on discussing and debating, not answering the question in a focused way that matches the question depth – a podium
  • There is opacity with regard to governance and content ownership – lack of transparency = low trust
  • There is a lack of moderation to keep the community – entropy happens

I believe StackExchange addresses all these issues in a remarkable set of people, policies and bots. I encourage you to help our community move forward by finding ways to organize and share knowledge on Agile in StackExchange. Please share your ideas and other agile resources in the comments.

Ryan Martens is CTO/Founder of Rally and on the way to be the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Unreasonable Institute this summer in Boulder –  See the Institute’s 2011 Fellows – Watch the intro video to the Institute and follow my escapades in the Unreasonable Mansion with twitter @RallyOn

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