Dear IT Department, Why Community Management Matters

It’s one of the curiosities of enterprise technology: Despite collaboration and engagement being an exclusively human activity — even when augmented and improved by digital tools — it’s the IT department that most often gets put in charge of rolling out said tools and then operating them long term.

According to recent research by the Real Story Group, IT is in fact far and away the most likely the department to both fund and sponsor, as well as implement social platforms in most organizations. Certainly, this seems to make sense, if one looks at social engagement as primarily a technology concern, rather than a powerful new human endeavor and way of working that is only in the end supported by new technologies.

Thus, even though HR, corporate communications, marketing, and other functions are very likely to be primary drivers and have direct input into the strategy for a social business effort, they have very little operational role in making the realization successful or managing it long term. Instead, IT typically treats the entire process like any other technology rollout to the organization. It goes through its tried and true playbook for bringing a new software product into the business, not fully understanding something rather different is required this time.

The Three Operational Elements of Communities: Project, Technology, and Community Management

The primary issue at stake is this: Social business in all its flavors — from social collaboration and social marketing to social customer care and even social supply chain — is not just another communications technology. Instead, it’s focused on engaging people in powerful new ways that requires a new set of digital skills in, yes, an enabling new technology environment. The tools are secondary (though important), how people work in effective new ways is what matters. Most significantly, a new operational entity emerges from this, called an online community, that did not exist before and requires its own cultivation and management.

The initiating business sponsors typically, for their part, are interested in connecting together people and their knowledge in more streamlined, dynamic, fluid, and actionable ways that benefits the work they are doing. It’s the people, ideas, and information they seek to tap into and unleash. But they don’t have the ability or responsibility to manage technology on their own. So they are usually required to reach out to the IT team to make their dreams come to life.

How Community Management Often Gets Left Out of Enterprise Social Projects

It’s at this point where things sometimes go off the rails. I’ve had this experience personally and continue to hear stories like this over and over again from social business practitioners, despite a growing body of evidence that shows what it takes for social business efforts to actually be successful. What I’m calling the “standard IT implementation process” leads too many community efforts to fall into a dysfunctional state that ensures they underperform. Perhaps the most common scenario is this:

  • A sponsor in the business comes to realize that a social business approach can benefit what they do. They seek to build and unleash communities on their business problems, and start thinking about the supporting technology they will need to make it happen.
  • The business sponsor involves the IT department for the technology component. The IT department, already owning a vast portfolio of tools, likely has a preferred solution from an entrenched vendor, instead of looking for the right technology to support the business requirements. Sometimes, if the business sponsor is lucky, a real technology evaluation is done. Either way, IT increasingly owns the project and planning because of the technical details. The business sponsor often loses control over the detailed planning and strategy, as complex technical details and issues start to obscure the original goals. Finding the best enabling environment for the community often becomes an afterthought.
  • The business sponsor seeks to drive forward the people-side changes and organizational support for the new social business effort. Proposals for shifting to new ways of working, providing education on new digital skills, and hiring support staff for the operations are too often to first items to get cut by the IT project committee. The technology should be self-evident, some say. It’s a simple training problem, say others. To almost everyone on the outside of the effort, looking at social business as a largely technology-based roll-out, it’s not obvious there’s a need for sustained workforce learning/skill building, change management of relevant business processes, or that the effort will create a large, new, unguided group of virtual people who are not directly supportable through traditional management or support processes. Because it’s new, few are even thinking about network leadership skills, for example.
  • The business sponsor, talking to social business efforts that were a success, learns about community management, a vital new support function for community-centric ways of working. The sponsor proposes that the company bring a couple of community managers on board, as they have heard they’ve turned out to be so helpful in other organizations. The response, because the request seems (and is) foreign and unusual, is either to deny the requests or offers up part-time volunteers that are currently available, usually interns or other junior staff with little to no experience actually managing large-scale business communities.
  • The big rollout happens, and the community limps along in an unmanaged fashion, with little direction or support. In the community, people ask questions, look for information, or otherwise engage but it often doesn’t go well and there’s no one to make sure it does. Other participants don’t know what to do with the new tools, or when/how to use them. The community often seems undirected and random, not guided or coached towards important business outcomes. With no one to inspire, troubleshoot, educate, and otherwise support the members, the community putters along with occasionally useful, but minor impact.

While I’m singling out IT departments for sometimes not providing the right resources to make online communities successful, the reality is community management, what I’ve long called the essential capability for online communities, can be neglected or underserved by anyone. Yet long-standing research from highly respected organizations like The Community Roundtable have found to be a top successful factor in realizing a social business solution.

Number of Community Managers by Organization Size

Ensuring Success with Social: Investing in Community Management

My advice to IT in order to avoid this scenario — based on many projects I’ve been involved in and many, many case studies — is this:

  1. Any social software that connects more than a handful of people together in a sustained way requires community management. You wouldn’t dream of rolling out an IT application without training or a help desk, or starting a project without project management, so please don’t operate an online community without its own relevant and critical form of enablement and support. Also, make sure you find the right community platform for your users. Note: That’s usually not the product that your incumbent vendor happens to have lying around.
  2. Use professional community managers. Hoping that you can have this strategic capability carried out by junior or inexperienced staff is a leading cause of low effectiveness of social platforms after rollout. While all communities usually have a big spike of usage upon release, there is usually a let down after everyone initially visits to see what it’s about. This is followed by a slow buildup as work steadily shifts to the enterprise social network, social customer care platform, customer community, and so on. This growth is greatly aided by community managers. This buildup is actually (mostly) created hundreds and even thousands of weekly activities taken by community managers to nurture, troubleshoot, support, and educate users on how to get the most from the new ways of working the technology makes possible.
  3. Community management, like IT support and training, never ends so plan for the long-term. Look at the historical data from average and best-in-class communities in the diagram above. This is a good starting rule of thumb on staff size. The amount of community managers required to make social business a success is actually quite small, but you must budget and staff them with experienced people year-in and year-out. Be sure to do so while accounting for the community growing over time, which it will if you have community managers.

IT Applications and Communities Both Need Management Support and Nurturing

As the old saying goes, I’ve actually come here to praise IT, not to bury it. I have an extensive IT background myself and so I know well the insane pace and enormous responsibilities for operations, security, and governance that are required to make technology in the enterprise successful. But I also know that when something very new and different is presented in a technology guise, that it’s hard not to run the same well-worn playbook that’s worked so well in the past. IT support and understanding for what is unique and important about communities is essential for successful social business. Many CIOs are indeed enabling it, just as many have not yet studied why it’s such a different technology animal.

Instead, IT leaders — and everyone really — has to understand why social business is special, why it requires both giving up non-essential control and letting the network do the work. And why it creates an vital new self-organizing entity of immense power that has started to change how organizations create value around the world: The digital community, and its critical enablement capability: Community management.

Additional Reading:

Online communities learn new practices, report higher ROI

Where to Position Online Community in Your Digital Strategy

5 Responses to Dear IT Department, Why Community Management Matters

  1. Michelle Ockers says:

    Thanks for this post Dion. I’ve been pushing the case for a Community Manager role in my organisation for over 12 months to no avail as yet. Based on the metrics you present we actually need 2. Do you have a view on where this role should sit. What are the pros and cons of it being in IT versus HR or a Transformation team? We have a new ‘Transformation’ team being established and I wonder if this is an appropriate location for the role even if just for a few years until networking and digital skills are seeded in the organisation.

    PS: Looking forward to exploring issues such as these in your Masterclass in Melbourne on 2 March

    • Michelle,

      Starting with at least two community managers is an ideal baseline unless you are a small organization. Otherwise the community just won’t have oversight and support enough of the time, and staff utilization just isn’t reasonable long-term either. With just one community manager there will also be no time for the strategic aspects of community management, such as planning, analytics, budgeting, etc.

      As far as where the role should sit, it often makes more sense to tap into corp comms or marketing, as strong communication skills and supporting resources already exist in those departments. But it often makes more sense for the community manager to belong to a social media Center of Excellence or other dedicated group for social in the organization. I fully realize you may not have this, and so a temporary home is better than none, even in IT. Hope that helps and that you send this piece to whomever you are asking for #cmgr resources.

      Looking forward to seeing you in Melbourne in a few weeks!

  2. All IT systems have a social element to deal with the formal and informal parts of ‘the system’ that IT inevitably can’t handle. Normally these are handled e.g. by the Finance department for the new finance system & HR for the new HR system.
    For a real enterprise-wide system (that the whole enterprise can use) there is no natural owner – which is why Community Managers need to be invented.

    • The argument has been made that the natural owner for an enterprise-wide system is in fact IT. My point here is that IT usually doesn’t have the skill sets, the purview, or interest in managing large groups of people towards business outcomes, which is what an online business community is. Community managers are a critical resource to tackle this gap and get results.

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