Purpose and Etiquette of On-Line Discussions

In the Lean Six Sigma Worldwide discussion group on LinkedIn, Steven Borris asked about the purpose of on-line discussions, whether they should stick precisely to the topic they were started on, and how disagreements between participants should be expressed or handled. As a participant in a variety of professional forums for the past 16 years, I have come to think of an online discussion as a conference that is always in session, in which the posting etiquette should be the same as at conferences.

Contributors should think of readers first. LinkedIn members read discussions for enlightenment, not entertainment. This isn’t Facebook. When readers browse a discussion, it is based on its subject, and that is what they expect to be covered. Like the title of a book, the name of a discussion announces what it is about. Readers are drawn to it by the need for information on that topic and have a legitimate expectation that the posts will be about it. If participants disappoint them, they go away upset at having been misled. For this reason,  discussions should stick to their subject, and group moderators or managers should make sure they do, with interesting digressions spawning new discussions.

Professional readers are also turned off by personal attacks and posts that question other posters’ motives. The participants need to “play nice” with each other, but a discussion where they all express the exact same ideas would not be informative and would be dull. The contributors to the discussions I participate in often have decades of experience that have shaped their perspectives on the topics, differently based on the industries and companies they have worked for. They are not on the same wavelength.

Often, however, apparent disagreements disappear when the context is properly set. For example, in his 1999 book on Six Sigma,  Mikel Harry wrote that the future of all business depends on an understanding of statistics; Shigeo Shingo, on the other hand, had no use for this discipline and wrote in ZQC that it took him 26 years to become free of its spell.

That sounds like a clear-cut disagreement. Mikel Harry developed Six Sigma at Motorola in the 1980s; Shigeo Shingo was a consultant and trainer primarily in the Japanese auto industry from 1945 to the 1980s, too early for discussion groups. Harry and Shingo worked in different industries with different needs at different times.With proper context setting, they can be both right.  Posts that start with “In my experience…” and support topical conclusions with an account of what that experience go a long way towards setting that context.