Forums as problem solving tools

Often when we have a complicated or unusual problem to solve, we turn to search engines. If we are lucky, our search results return a link to an authoritative source such as TechNet or Windows IT Pro. By authoritative I mean a source where the published articles have to go through some form of editorial or fact checking process before being posted to the site.

The longer we are IT pros the more likely it is that we will encounter a problem that doesn’t have a neat solution that we can locate at an authoritative source. Almost always (assuming we can find one at all) that solution will be published in a forum, on a blog or within a newsgroup.

When we find these solutions we find problems that seem superficially similar to ours. This is a limitation of using search engine key words to describe problems we are might not fully understand ourselves. Other limitations we face are assumptions we make about the ability of a forum poster to articulate the problem they have encountered and the fact that they might not fully know what is going on either.

Assuming that you overcome these barriers and find a post that describes the problem you face, you then have to make an assessment of the quality of the answer provided. If you’ve hung around forums for any length of time you’ll know that just as there are informative posters who often lead people asking questions towards helpful solutions but that there are posters that provide answers that are so off base that they can actually cause significant problems. It isn’t that they’ve (necessarily) done this deliberately, but that they might not understand the problem as described or they might just not know what the heck they are talking about.

Posts where the initial poster comes back and says “yes, that worked, thanks!” or “no, that didn’t work” are useful because they give you some ability to assess the quality of advice. You end up in a bind when a seemly intelligent answer is offered, but the original poster doesn’t give any indication as to whether or not it works. You could try it on the problem you are trying to resolve, but it might even make things worse.

The catch-22 for you as an IT pro is that if you are looking in forums for answers it is because you can’t find them anywhere else. If you are trying to solve a problem on an important server, you should be reluctant to rely on advice you find posted in forums without there being some pretty strong evidence that the advice actually resolved the problem that you are attempting to solve. You should try to make some assessment as to the reliability of the person providing the response.

The best thing that you can do is get involved, even if it is tangentially, in your own IT Pro community (such as the forums on this site). Once you have an understanding of which people on the site seem to regularly answer people’s queries in a useful and correct manner, you’ll have a better idea about the reliability of the answer provided when you have your own complicated question.

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