Foster your communities of practice by getting members to answer questions

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —December 21, 2006
Filed in Collaboration

Kathy Sierra had made an astute observation about user communities: they thrive if more people, from novice to expert, ask and answer questions. In fact, Kathy focuses on how to get more people answering questions and in particular how to get the intermediate-level users involved in answer giving. The strategy is a smart one. If more people are answering questions they become more involved in the community’s activities, they learn more (a great way to learn is to teach), they stay involved and add value to the community.

But there is another reason to get your intermediate-level members answering novice questions: experts are not great at conveying what they know because their years of practice have enabled them to abstract and internalise how they get things done and explaining it to a novice is difficult for them. It is better for a novice to learn from an intermediate-level practitioner than from an expert (check out Ackerman et. al. 2003 or Ericsson et. al. 2006)

But here is the challenge:

Encouraging a “There Are No Dumb Questions” culture is only part of the solution. What we really need is a “There are No Dumb Answers” policy.

Kathy suggests six steps to create a “There are No Dumb Answers” culture:

  1. Encourage newer users—especially those who’ve been active askers—to start trying to answer questions
  2. Give tips on how to answer questions (see below)
  3. Tell them it’s OK to guess a little, as long as they ADMIT they’re guessing
  4. Adopt a near-zero-tolerance “Be Nice” policy when people answer questions
  5. Teach and encourage the more advanced users (including moderators) how to correct a wrong answer while maintaining the original answerer’s dignity.
  6. Re-examine your reward/levels strategy for your community

Here are a couple of FAQs from javaranch that give suggestions on how to ask and answer questions (java developers have a tradition of running phrases together with each word captilised—just in case you were wondering):

  • ShowSomeEffort
  • SearchFirst
  • CarefullyChooseOneForum
  • EaseUp
  • PatienceIsAVirtue
  • UseAMeaningfulSubjectLine
  • DoYourOwnHomework
  • TellTheDetails
  • AvoidRedHerrings
  • IsolateTheProblem
  • PostRealCode
  • UseOneThreadPerQuestion
  • UseRealWords
  • KeepItDown
  • UseCodeTags
  • UseTheForumNotEmail
  • RespectYourCoranchersPrivacy
  • HowToCopyEnvironmentVariablesAndDirectoryStructures
  • SayThanks

  • FirstRuleDoNoHarm
  • BeNice
  • BePatient
  • ReadTheQuestion
  • ReadTheAnswers
  • AdmitWhenYouAreGuessing
  • DontWakeTheZombies
  • DejaVuAllOverAgain
  • LetThemDoTheirOwnHomework

Ericsson, K. A., N. Charness, et al., Eds. (2006). The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Ackerman, M., P. Volkmar, et al., Eds. (2003). Sharing Expertise: Beyong Knowledge Management. Cambridge, Massachuetts, The MIT Press.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Denham says:

    “You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.” Naguib Mahfouz (Nobel Prize Winner)
    I have found this to be a useful link:

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