Virtual community (VC), in its most general sense, is an increasingly popular and apparently omnipresent tool to communicate and interact on the Web. People from diverse backgrounds meet in VCs for likewise diverse purposes: social gatherings, information sharing, entertainment, social, and professional support. The phenomenon of virtual—or online—communities dates back to the late 1960s, when ARPANET, a network for U.S.-military research purposes was established (Licklider & Taylor, 1968). The initially provided e-mail service was later supplemented by a chat functionality. In 1979, virtual social interaction was enabled by USENET use-groups. Here, asynchronous communication is enabled by e-mail and bulletin boards. In the same year, multi user dungeons (MUDs), a new form of text-based virtual reality games were created. In 1985, The WELL was started. This mainly bulletin board-based VC received public attention at least by the publication of the community experiences of one of its most active members, Howard Rheingold. His book also marks the starting point of the virtual community literature (Rheingold, 1993). In the late 1990s, the focus on VCs as Web-based enablers of social interaction (e.g., Wellman, Salaff, Dimitrova, Garton, Gulia, & Haythornthwaite, 1996) shifted to the perception of its potential economic value (e.g., Hagel & Armstrong, 1997). The aim of this article is to depict applications of VCs in human resources (HR)-relevant processes. Applications range from company internal employee communities to company external applicant communities. HR-relevant VCs reflect the increasing utilization of modern information and communication technology (ICT) in human resource management (HRM). The application of VCs in HRM might be beneficial but also may cause negative effects if current trends, are not observed or if the technology is not incorporated strategically. In the following, a definition, a framework, and a categorization of HR-relevant VCs is given. Examples outline potential applications and implications for HRM.
Since the 1990s, VCs have become an omnipresent term and tool. Innumerable VCs on the Web and a multiplicity of heterogeneous research confirm the importance and impact of the VC development in private and business life in the Internet era.
There are diverse definitions of the VC term, and no consensus has been attained yet. Though, the tenor of all definitions might be regarded as equal comprising the main criteria: group of people, shared interest, and technologically mediated. Rather generally, “[…] a virtual community is defined as an aggregation of individuals or business partners who interact around a shared interest, where the interaction is at least partially supported and/or mediated by technology and guided by some protocols or norms” (Porter, 2004). Then again, a specification in regard to the field of HRM is needed, so that VCs with an impact on HRM are in the broadest sense defined as groups of people, who join primarily in Web-based places to deliberately, moderated or independent, communicate and interact on HR-relevant aspects.
Research literature on VCs is abundant, yet rather diverse and fragmented due to different perspectives, for example, sociological and cultural, economical, technological, experiential, scholarly and methodological, evolutionary and design-related, and finally the application perspective. An inclusive research framework, which integrates different perspectives, is worthwhile, yet still missing. The predominant part of VC research is presented in exploratory case studies and conceptual works. Recent scholarly studies prevalently focus on development and design issues, as well as on VC dynamics. Research on VC application is a rather unexplored field (Gupta & Kim, 2004; Li, 2004; Preece, 2002). Thus, also literature on VC applications in HRM is rather scarce, though HR-relevant VCs are actually existent but still little researched and systematized. As ICT in general becomes increasingly important in supporting HRM (e.g., Strohmeier, 2006), it is worthwhile to analyze the typology and impact of the VC phenomenon on HR relevant aspects.