Photo by ktylerconk on Flickr
Photo by ktylerconk on Flickr
Discussion Forums (including email lists)

Brief Description

A discussion forum is a virtual place on the internet where conversations can take place and information can be shared more easily among a geographically dispersed group of people. Discussion forums are typically created around a specific topic of common interest or for a specific user group around a particular piece of work. Discussion Forums have many things in common with Email Lists.

Asynchronous conversations.
  • Discussion forums are typically asynchronous, meaning the participants don’t have to be online at the same time. Sometimes people think of synchronous tools such as chat in the same way. With chat, you each have to be online at the same time. But in both you are taking turns between each of the conversation participants.
  • Focus on who said what.

Who Can Participate in a Discussion Forum?
Whoever controls the area where a discussion forum is used determines who can read and contribute to the forum. You can make them open to all of an organization or to just a small group of people. Giving people access to a forum, however, does not ensure they will read or participate. Their must be a compelling reason for the forum and most often you need to facilitate and encourage the discussion


Online discussion forums have been around since computers were first networked. One of the original intentions of the Internet was to make it easy for scientists to collaborate. The most important early discussion forums were on USENET, which started in 1979. Discussion forums later became the base for many online communities.

When to Use

There are many ways to use discussion forums, from formal structured conversations to informal “cafés”. The difference between them is the focus and duration of the conversation.
  • When people are in different places and time zones, making synchronous interactions more difficult, discussion forums can be useful.
  • When people are working in a second language and the slower pace of a web based discussion allows more time to make meaning across languages.
  • When it is important to know who said what and when they said it, because the discussion forum lists who made a post and when they posted it. This is especially useful when trying to track project work.
  • When you want a space for informal conversation that doesn’t need much structure, you can create a “café” or informal thread.

What are my alternatives and when should I use them?

Discussion forum weaknesses
If people don’t regularly go to the workspace on the hive, they are less likely to participate in a discussion forum.
If there are multiple forums, people may not know which forum to participate in.
Discussion forum conversations can drag on without an action or decision if they are not facilitated. Don’t expect every discussion to work without a little encouragement and structure.


  • Blogs – blogs are good when you want to send out a message. People can always comment, but the focus is on sharing out, rather than conversation per se.
  • Wikis – wikis are good when it doesn’t matter who said what and you want your conversation to evolve into a final product, like a summary of a conversation. You could pair a wiki and a discussion forum. Have the discussion on the forum, and do the summary on the wiki.
  • Chat– chat is good when the people in the conversation are all online at the same time. It is more immediate and can be good for things like decision making or dealing with issues where you need a lot of “back and forth” in the conversation.

How to use

Key principles for Facilitation and moderation of discussions
  • Keeping a forum tidy (messages in the right place, delete inappropriate messages, etc.)
  • when to open a new forum (when discussion splits or changes topic, or gets too long/complicated to follow)
  • when to close a forum (when old, unused discussions appear as a disincentive to participate, clutter, etc.)
  • archiving (capturing an exact copy of the conversation)
  • summarizing (extracting the key content only)

Examples of discussion forum practices
  • Conversations supporting a global community of practice
  • Holding a week long asynchronous online meeting in a web forum
  • Carrying out a peer assist with colleagues around the world
  • Informal places to create and nurture relationships
  • Structured or informal training and learning groups, especially where conversation is useful
  • Project coordination and teamwork
  • Informal information and knowledge sharing
  • Asynchronous meetings as an alternative to face-to-face meetings and conference calls

Discussion Group Software


Dgroups is an online home for groups and communities interested in international development. In Dgroups, one can find the online tools and services needed to support the activities of a team, a group, a network, a partnership or a community. Dgroups is also a place to find groups who are interested in the same topics in international development as you.
Contact your organisation's partner .
  • For the CGIAR contact: Silvia Ticconi at [email protected]. Silvia sends you a form to fill out and creates your Dgroup.
  • For FAO contact: Kristin Kolshus at dgroups AT for a discussion.

Yahoogroups is a free online service provided by Yahoo!. It is a free service allowing communities with common interests to set up a common "group" and share message (which are archived), photos, events calendars, polls and links.

Googlegroupsis a free online service provided by Google.

Tips and Lessons Learnt

  • FAO have successfully used DGroups for online E-Conference. It provides for asynchronous communication across contients for users with low-bandwidth connectivity. The two known issues with DGroups were:
    • Lack of possibility to see messages in context (Threads). Therefore, context on which message is a reply to which is missing.
    • Lack of possiblity to send messages in Rich Text or HTML format (formats often used by Yahoo and other E-mail Clients). All messages must be sent in Plain Text.

Examples & Stories

CSO-CGIAR Forum Dgroup:

Models and Examples of discussion forums in international NGOs.

Who can tell me more?

(add your name/contact email)

Related Methods / Tools / Practices




Creative Commons photo by ktylerconk