The Dance of Community Management

At the recent Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston, a consistent theme I heard was the importance of community management (Dion Hinchliffe gave an excellent session to a packed room on Implementing Enterprise 2.0: Exploring the Tools and Techniques of Emergent Change) and yet I heard little discussion on the specific keys and components of community management. After years of watching, participating in and managing several successful Enterprise 2.0 implementations, I know well enough you just don’t stand up a wiki and get an active, contributing community of members.

Community management is comprised of managing the technical environment as well as the social environment and it’s virtually impossible to grow and maintain a healthy, vibrant space without both. The ideal community manager personality has been described as “Passionate, but without letting it get out of control. Thick-skinned, but not cruel or insensitive. Driven, but still interested in helping others. Personable, but always professional.” It’s also essential for community managers/management to understand and be proficient in the online environment in order to quickly adjust and adapt it in response to user needs. This confluence of skills and capabilities is a dance, with four basic steps: Keep it Loose, Keep ‘em Tight, Keep it Hot, Keep ‘em Cool.

1. Keep it LOOSE

* The environment must not be Fort Knox or Hotel California. People need to be able to enter, move around, and leave the community (with what they bring to it) with ease and even if there are security challenges, there must be clear and responsive measures in place to enable this. I’ve visited more SharePoint community graveyards than I’d like to know this is the case.

* Have standards, processes and procedures but keep them flexible and open to change. Absolutes can kill the evolution of an community. The members of the community must be able to sculpt the space into what they want and need. In competitive environments where users and customers have options for where they participate, disenfranchisement can cause swift backlash (as was the case with the Facebook user information policy). And in communities where members are not able to express personal preferences, the results can be disastrous. Facebook, who secured its dominance over MySpace in the United Kingdom early last year, can attribute it’s success simply to MySpace’s too little, too late realization of this.

2. Keep ‘em TIGHT

* People will leave the community but you can still maintain the relationships. One of the hardest realities for communities and enterprises to accept is that people will leave. But by encouraging members to share information that facilitates mechanisms of communication outside the community (i.e. including a Twitter handle or non-work affiliated email in an enterprise profile) the enterprise is opening channels for contribution. And benefits will be reaped.

* Maintain integrity through data. Keeping community members tied to data is key – the more they have access to, the better; the more the can do what they want with it, the better. And from the perspective of a community manager as a facilitator, keeping users linked to data can be one of the most effective ways to mitigate verbal mud-slinging that can sometimes occur in communication channels.

* Build trust through communication. Last year, Twitter had to learn this the hard way by failing to communicate the issue with its service disruptions but quickly rectified the situation by posting frequent status updates both to the site and to its blog. People are more lenient and forgiving if you keep them informed.

3. Keep it HOT

* Be a fire-starter. Keep it fresh, by bringing in new ideas, new capabilities, new people, new data. People go to where the action is and will leave a stale environment, even if it has all the right technical elements. Like the empty restaurant syndrome, even if your community/environment is serving up something great, people are inherently adverse to empty spaces.

* Keep the synapses firing. Communities grow through relationships and need mechanisms to constantly making new connections, either data-to-data, people-to-data or people-to-people. This can be achieved by people, processes or tools but they need to be there.

* Turn up the heat. Constantly watch or listen for opportunities to fan a spark. Community managers and management need to nurture new ideas, new members and new technologies that, without assistance, might never take off due to a simple lack of support.

4. Keep ‘em COOL

* Isolate or contain fires. People are people, with emotions, opinions, egos and unpredictable actions; sometimes community dynamics can get too hot. Again, listening and watching the space is critical, to identify and address causes of disorder or unrest. Sometimes this means reaching out to disaffected individuals personally or even exorcising them from the community. The same thing goes for the technical side of the environment. If something isn’t working, turning it off as soon as possible can prevent it infecting the continuity of operations for the rest of the environment.

* Consciously model and identify best practices behavior. People do as people see. “Let people know what’s expected of them in advance. Check in to see how people are doing. Project enthusiasm and energy. Applaud team and individual achievements both large and small.” (Facilitate Proceedings)

* Play and humor has it’s time and place. Communities (especially those belonging to an enterprise) sometimes frown upon play and humor. And yet it’s one of the best ways to attract and retain members. Play and humor can not only bond community members but can also be the best facilitators of innovation and creativity.

Community management can be done both formally and informally, but it is beneficial if it is identified as an essential enterprise component and someone has it written in their job role to ensure it gets done with regularity. From an enterprise perspective, the most important factor to consider in terms of organizational alignment is the affordance of flexibility and autonomy in the role. Actions of community managers can range from SYSOP to BarCamp organizer. I’ve had the benefit and pleasure of working with people like Andrea Baker and Steven Mandzik who both have been paid to be community managers, but also do it naturally in whatever environment they participate, and I know how essential and valuable their roles are to the community. While the individual components of community management are not necessarily difficult to achieve nor extremely unique, the totem can be rare but highly effective when in place, with the greatest factor of success being presence – having dedicated resources in place who show up and are committed to the health and growth of the community.

0 thoughts on “The Dance of Community Management

  1. Amy – I am scared that community managers are the new oppressed class.

    They do all the work: the organizing, building, supporting, connecting, etc.

    Then when the benefits appear all the…’you know whats’… come out of the woodwork to take credit for it.

    How many people who talk about communities have really done the hard work of building one?

    Do they talk from experience or is it just a consultant like pitch about what a theoretical one looks like?

  2. As always Amy, you have summed up my experience in a great nutshell.

    1. Keep it LOOSE
    Community management is one of ambient interaction and perpetual change. You could start a community with no rules, but best practices will evolve with use. You can’t expect a situation to be the same year one as it is in year three.

    2. Keep ‘em TIGHT
    Keeping up with relationships when a person leaves a community is key. Once a person has left they can come at you with a different perspective and possibly a more frank voice than when inside the community. This “outbriefing” can be key for finding out what issues might be brewing under the covers.

    Additionally, I couldn’t agree more with being transparent about the ups and the downs when dealing with application development inside a community. These tools the community use are the means to an end. when a tool fails, they will jump elsewhere. But if you let the community know when they can resume business, maybe they can get some “real work” done during the downtime.

    3. Keep it HOT
    A community manager can be an innovator, but it should not end there. A good community manager fosters the environment of their mentorees and community leaders to speak up and suggest new techniques and tools to get the mission of the community accomplished. Community Managers should have an open door policy to be broached for ideas to thrive.

    4. Keep ‘em COOL
    People will call you bad names and get under your skin a little if you let them when you are trying to maintain decorum, especially in a professional community setting. Levity is OK in some cases, but you have to remind your community from time to time what the mission is and not to steer away from that.

    I recently had to deal with an unfortunate firing in my community in which the person was an outstanding contributor, but a line was crossed in a bad joke. This could have been prevented in many ways, but we can’t be there all the time to monitor the community. We have to put trust in the people we manage they know right from wrong.

    When they don’t, those are the times we will be called a tyrant for enforcing the rules of the road for the community. But if you can handle that with a shrug of the shoulder after the first time, then you can make it through anything the community can throw at you.

  3. Some really great pointers. Thanks for sharing.

    Too many make the mistake of trying to push a community in one direction, while organically it wants to grow in another. We can build the skeleton, but community members add the meat and the muscle. Therefore “Keeping it Loose” is very important.

  4. Some great points, and if I may add some.

    * The environment must not be Fort Knox or Hotel California.
    I use the concept of “Barriers to entry”.
    Barriers to entry can be good, as they can provide a sense of investment within a community, BUT they need to be attainable, and an individual needs to “see value” in climbing that barrier.

    * Have standards, processes and procedures but keep them flexible and open to change.

    With the implementation of anything new… take a step back and pretend you are a user for a minute, how might this change affect you?
    ALWAYS consult with your usergroup before doing any change (even if you know the change is something they will not appreciate, and will vocally exercise against it, it provides you an opportunity to explain the change in an open and honest fashion, and an opportunity to vent their anger against you)
    NEVER EVER assume that users won’t care, or won’t notice.

    * People will leave the community but you can still maintain the relationships.

    Couldn’t have put that better myself. Always keep a door open.

    * Maintain integrity through data.
    I might add – make it as easy to get to as possible too.

    * Build trust through communication
    Always be open, honest and proactive with it too. People aren’t stupid, and will see through bull shit pretty easily.
    Also encourage feedback on any communication you do – if for no other reason than it gives an indication that you care about their personal opinion.
    Try as best you can to focus your attention to responding to any feedback too.

    * Be a fire-starter
    I think in a communities “life-cycle” this is important in its early development. Much less so (and I would even suggest, counterproductive) in its later development, as you want a community to become more self-sustaining, a community manager should not loose the “pulse” of the community, but more-so guide, nurture and empower those that can now be the fire-starters on your behalf.

    * Keep the synapses firing.
    Again, couldn’t have said better.

    * Turn up the heat
    With anything in community management, implementation of any new tools/features/members etc. is the key to its success. Only do it 95% right… expect to only get 5% of the participation. Encourage interaction, communicate in every fashion with your members in a manners that is conducive to them.

    * Isolate or contain fires.
    In my opinion, if community management is “done right”, this never occurs. If you have empowered the right individuals (and nurtured them correctly) when a potential spark occurs, is is quashed at the lowest level. That said – there may be an instance where you may need to be the “charismatic leader” (read the book called “The New SuperLeadership: Leading Others to Lead Themselves”), it has a time and a place, and you should not be adverse to jumping in and getting your feet burnt, but if I actively need to be involved in a “fire”, I see that my leadership within a community has failed.
    Always monitor these very closely too… good community management will turn a fire into everyone sitting round on camping chairs with marshmallows out singing Qum ba YAH

    * Consciously model and identify best practices behavior

    And empower/reward those individuals that display it.

    * Play and humor has it’s time and place.
    And its on our site! People should enjoy the site, participate, and it is only whereby humor is utilized as a device to be unreasonable/violate guidelines-TOU-law should it be gently (or strongly) steered in the fashion of play and humor, not being unreasonable.

    Adrian

  5. robotchampion – Just to respond to your comments:

    They do all the work: the organizing, building, supporting, connecting, etc.

    Then when the benefits appear all the…’you know whats’… come out of the woodwork to take credit for it.

    How many people who talk about communities have really done the hard work of building one?

    There is a lot of value in community management… and it is a fool who thinks otherwise, we are reaching a point in “Web 2.0″‘s growth cycle where I believe it has reached an equal or greater business importance than the technical management of a website.
    Those that do not value Community management, or those that understand it will ultimately fail with the concept of “Web 2.0″.
    That said, it is the responsibility of a good community manager to articulate to whom they need to (investors/technical people/managers etc.) the value of Community Management in a metric they understand (I find $$$ to be pretty universal :-D ), it is not those individuals responsibility to understand the art of good Community Management, but if it is communicated correctly to them, they should be able to respect it.

  6. [...] it. In the same line of thought, but without the cat whispering, I love this post on 1 x 57 titled The Dance of Community Mqnagement, where Amy Senger describes four “dance steps” to comm7nity management – keep it [...];

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