One thing really struck me from the survey report on Online Communities in Business, assembled for the 7th International Conference on Virtual Communities. The survey asked a who's who of online-community experts the relative degree to which various communication technologies are in use now, and how much they expect each technology will be in use one year from now and five years from now. The survey distinguished between "customer communities" (external to an organization) and "employee communities" (internal to an organization). Interestingly, the experts predict broadly rising use of communication technologies in customer communities, but they predict broadly declining use of communication technologies in employee communities, with just a few exceptions in each case. Here's the quote:
"In contrast to customer communities, where the range of technologies in use continues to expand, respondents from employee communities expect to consolidate around a smaller set of applications. Among the technologies expected to lose ground over the coming years are discussion forums, email discussion lists, instant messaging, chat, teleconferencing, newsgroups, web conferencing, text messaging, and (if only marginally) social networking. (Keep in mind our respondents focused on use for communities only: some of these technologies such as web conferencing, for example, may be expected to grow if we looked at corporate use overall.)
"In terms of growth, only teamrooms, wireless/mobile, RSS, expertise location, and wikis are expected to maintain or gain ground in both periods [one-year and five-year] against 2004 usage levels. Webcasts and weblogs are expected to gain in the one-year period only.
"One year out, the hierarchy of applications in employee communities changes fairly dramatically. Whereas today the top technologies are forums and lists, one year from now our employee-group respondents say they will use web conferencing and webcasts more than any other tools. Five years out, webconferencing is expected to stay at the top of the heap, followed by teamrooms, teleconferencing, discussion forums, and email lists."
The survey report says very little about why respondents are predicting this decline, although they do note that bandwidth has expanded to make webconferencing a practical reality.
As for the decline of other technologies, I interpret this report as an indirect affirmation of the social aspects of community building -- a refocusing of priorities away from "online" and towards "community" in "online community."
For another take on employee online communities, see this IBM "On Demand Workplace" page. See also the comments I recently quoted by Borgatti and Foster about the relationship between technology, sociology, and knowledge management.