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.