8 Tips for Using Forums Effectively

Over the past few months, I’ve put more of a concentrated effort on helping answer questions on various #MSDYNGP forums. I’ve responded off and on over the years, but only in the last few months have I attempted to regularly work at contributing in that way. I’ve noticed a few things that are either pet peeves or simply my opinion on right and wrong ways to use public forums for advice when it comes to your Dynamics GP question. Most of these items can easily be applied to any forum experience but mine are more specific to ERP forums in general.

Forums? What Forums?

If you are an end user or consultant, chances are you already know of or have used a forum/community in the past. Forums are simply a generic term for any website that encourages community collaboration and asking/answering of questions and anyone can respond. In case you aren’t familiar, here are a few of the more active and better known forums for Dynamics GP, for either customer or partner use. There are others as well and I can update this post with others’ suggestions if the forum appears to be reputable and actively used.

* GPUG & the other UG sites have various forums all under the Dynamics Communities banner. The GPUG Open Forum is public, searchable and viewable without a membership and you can register for free to be able to ask and answer questions. All other forums require you to be a member (various special interest groups etc.), pass one or more of the certification exams (Dynamics Pros forum), or a partner member (Partner forum).

Which one should I use?

I don’t have a specific recommendation but, generally, I look for the frequency of activity on a forum and the people who tend to be responding to the questions. There are lots of forums out there. When I was doing a bit more research for this post, I tried to find more active forums other than the ones I listed and found several that are for GP or Dynamics products in general; however the first page has posts ranging from relatively recent to over a year ago. That tells me there aren’t many users so your chances of getting solid advice may be less than optimal.

Similarly, I look at who is responding to the questions. In my opinion, if you tend to see regular activity from any of the Dynamics GP MVPs (past or present) or from Microsoft themselves, that’s a great start as you know they add a ton of credibility to the forum. Any forum where MVPs or Microsoft spend their time helping others means they believe that forum has some value and it’s been worth their time to help people out.

There are also tons of very knowledgeable customers, consultants and partners out there who answer questions every day on forums and you can tell from reading the question and the responses that you’re likely to get a helpful response if not an answer to your question. Not to single out GPUG, but it’s a great example of a place where the predominant purpose is end users helping end users and you see many of the same names helping out every day. That also lends credibility to the forum when there is consistency in who is reading and helping.

8 Tips for Using Forums Effectively

  1. Pick the right forum

With so many forums available to ask questions in, based on the type of question you have, select the forum you feel is the best fit or highest likelihood of getting a quality response in and post there. For example, if you or your boss won’t believe an answer unless is comes from Microsoft or a verifiable source, stick to the Dynamics Community (or start a paid support case so you’re guaranteed a Microsoft response). If you are interested in others’ experiences with a product or module that you are considering, the GPUG forum is your best bet as the majority of the responders are end users who may have real world feedback for you. If you want to make sure your question has the most “eyeballs”, look for the most active forums that cover your topic and the chances of a good response are higher for you generally speaking.

For partners, consider where you post your questions too. This is just my opinion, but if you, as a consultant or partner, are posting your questions on a public customer-based site, what does that tell your customer, when they are paying you $X per hour for the solution? Some questions are just fine, some things though, if you are asking a question to assist a client, you may want to think about the optics of posting on a forum where customers can see you’ve just asked for help in answering the question you are charging your time for.

  1. Don’t cross post

Cross-posting refers to posting the same question on multiple forums, either on the same site or different sites. It’s considered bad etiquette to do this generally, and is pretty annoying when you see it happen over and over again. In my opinion, what you end up doing is having multiple people attempting to help you not knowing there are others helping on the same thing who may have already answered your question. In other words, you’re wasting people’s time.

I see this happening in the forums I tend to visit and when I see some users doing this repeatedly, I don’t even bother to respond to any of their posts. I don’t know how others react but I am certainly less helpful to those who do this regularly. If you feel the need to cross-post, at least write that in your post on both forums!  Tell people “I’ve also asked this on forum XYZ” so that someone who might respond may take the time to look and see if you already have responses on the other site. But, please, don’t cross-post regularly or you may find yourself ignored by those that could help you the most.

  1. Keep the thread updated

There is nothing more frustrating than to take the time to help someone with a question - particularly when it’s something that is pretty detailed - and then the user vanishes into thin air. Put another way, you are searching for help prior to posting a question on a forum and you see someone had the exact same question recently, and there are various answers, but the original poster didn’t bother to update the question with what helped.

Did they read the answer in the first place? Did the answer help? Did they find their own solution? What worked for them, if it isn’t the same solution as was in a previous answer?

You certainly don’t owe anyone a response but the proper thing (again, IMHO) to do is identify if a response was useful. Every forum has different ways of doing this - marking a post as answered, marking it as helpful or actually writing back a response one way or another if it did or did not help.

  1. Marking your own posts an answers

This is a pet peeve, not an etiquette tip. I don’t understand why people mark their own answers to posts as the answer. In my humble opinion, the answer is in the eye of the original poster or the forum moderator if there is one. I don’t know why this irritates me but I find it arrogant for people to post and then mark their own post as the answer. I see this in a few places and in some cases consistently with the same users.

Part of the problem lies in many forums tracking statistics on things like this - something I have never cared about but I’m likely in the minority there. I’ve seen a few posts of people questioning the “mark as answers” approach, calling it gamification (gaming the system, to increase their own credibility). Good term! Personally, I would love to see the determination of “number of marked answers” or whatever the statistic be, based on users other than yourself marking that button.

  1. Search before posting

This doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers others (based on posts I see on the subject!), but it can be annoying. Please take the time to try to find your own solution first with a quick search. Search techniques can easily be a subject on to its own but here are some of my own approaches to searching that help me. By doing any of these types of things, chances are good you’ll run across someone else who already experienced and resolved the same issue!

  • Start broadly first. Start with Google or Bing, search some broad terms for what your question area is, along with “GP” or “Dynamics GP” with the words you choose to search on.  This is always my first and often the last place I need to search as it will pick up many of the most common help sites and blogs in the search if you find a hit. Too often I see people go directly to a specific site and then search there but you are limiting yourself to that set of content. If that site is just a forum, you’re missing out on many community blogs that may have covered this issue.
  • If you are troubleshooting an error message, try putting the specific error message or key parts of it in your search. “GP crashed” is useless. “Get/Change Error on table XXX” is better if that is the error you have. With the community as strong as it is, it’s pretty rare that you get an error message that no one has run into before. Unless your name is Steve Endow, king of the obscure error blog posts! ; )
  • Search within your favourite forum. If you are about to post a question, try the search function within your forum first. Not all forums are open to searches like Bing or Google so don’t assume if you tried the broad search first, that it means this specific site doesn’t have a response. Private or member only sites are not in search results although most public forums tend to be.
  • For ISV/Third Party solutions, try the vendor’s website. Often they have specific articles addressing common questions and issues and it may or may not be publicly searchable. Often times you may be paying for support via your annual maintenance and can get free support and save yourself the time of asking “strangers” when you could ask the source itself for free!
  • Knowledgebase on Customersource/Partnersource can be searched too, although gradually more of those articles are appearing in public search results. Personally (and no offense to Microsoft!), it’s my last resort when all else fails as any of the methods above yield far more high quality results quicker than this, in my opinion.
  1. Help us help you

Be specific if you can with the versions you are running of the products you are asking about. If you have a Management Reporter question, for instance, both the GP version and the MR version and build # / service pack / CU update number are useful when posting a question. Quite often there are situations where a service pack resolves an issue and you don’t realize it and it’s that simple. Sometimes there is new functionality and someone may post an answer assuming you are on a recent version and you’re not, and that doesn’t exist in your version (or is a module you need to purchase).

If you have tried some things to resolve your issue or searched and failed to find an answer, include that in the post. It’s helpful to those trying to help you to know what you have already tried. Is it a blank slate “I have no idea where to start” or a power user “I’ve tried x, y and z and none of those worked” situation?

If you are using a third party product or have significant customizations, this is useful too. Quite often though, I see users who are unaware that they are using ISVs or have customizations, until they post screen shots or menu navigations of where their issue lies. That leads me to my next point..

  1. Know when to contact your partner/VAR/ISV

When it’s urgent! If you have a serious issue or time-sensitive problem, do not post on a forum for your answer! Forums by definition are manned by volunteers who answer questions when they have time. They are not a support desk where people get guaranteed response times. You could get lucky, but chances are you won’t.

Otherwise, from time to time, I see people posting questions, getting quality responses yet they clearly do not understand the response enough to do something with the information. You can tell from the responses that they are unfamiliar enough with GP that they don’t know the terminology well enough to execute the solution provided. This isn’t a bad thing but to me it is a sign that you shouldn’t be using a forum for advice and should be looking to get your partner involved, or take some additional training to get yourself better acquainted with your system and what the moving parts are first. Here are a few instances where I recommend getting the partner involved (or hiring, generally, someone with expertise to assist):

  • When you are posting question(s) every day on the forums because you aren’t able to resolve them yourself. There may not be a rule about how frequently you ask questions but if you have some new issue every day and cannot resolve it yourself, it is worth bringing a partner in to get you settled or get you trained. Frequent posting is sometimes considered abuse, looking for it to be your personal helpdesk. Apart from that, if I see a customer has a question every day, I am starting to wonder what the heck is going on and go visit them to make sure their environment is ok. Smoothly running environments don’t have new issues every day of the week!
  • When you don’t understand the terminology people are using to help you. If someone says, to fix XYZ problem, you need to run this SQL statement and your response is “what does SQL mean?”, then you may not be qualified to use the solution or even to have an understanding on whether the answer makes sense. See my next point for more on that.
  • If people are asking you clarifying questions to be able to assist you and you don’t know how to answer them. “What version are you using?”, “Do you have customizations?”, “are you using a third party product?” are common questions and I believe you need to learn how to answer some of those things first, before trying to self-support or you may do more harm than good to your system.
  1. Not all forum answers are right for you!

Just because you got an answer to your question, it doesn’t mean it is the right answer! I’ve seen responses to questions that are quite simply incorrect, as in factually-incorrect statements. The person who posted the answer may be well-intentioned but it happens, more often that you’d like to think. Apart from that, not every solution is relevant to your situation even though it might be a legitimate answer. It could be that you’ve already tried that suggestion before posting (see point #6) or that you have a special circumstance that others wouldn’t obviously be aware of that make their suggestion invalid. Sometimes well meaning users answer a question based on their environment which is configured completely differently than your environment and what they suggest isn’t relevant.

There are lots of answers to posts that are also not even answering the question asked but go down a rabbit-hole of unrelated information. Well-intentioned I hope but sometimes useless.

Basically, “buyer beware” applies to forum answers. It’s free, and there is no guarantee things will work in your environment or apply. If you don’t know how to reasonably tell if one suggestion may work or not work, please, try the suggestion in a test environment or test company first. Don’t assume every answer is right and perfect and just run that script in production. Particularly when people provide answers in terms of scripts at a SQL level, you had better know exactly what interacts with your environment and how before you start running scripts unless they come from your partner or Microsoft! I’ve seen people find solutions online now knowing that it could break a customization or some other poor result because they didn’t know enough about their environment to be cautious prior to running something. This falls back to #7, know when to reach out to someone with documented expertise.

Those are my observations and opinions only, obviously your mileage may vary as the saying goes. Be respectful on the forums would be my last bit of advice. People who take the time to answer are trying to help so don’t bite the hand that feeds you if it happens not to work for you.

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