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

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The Hardest Lesson of Digital Transformation: Designing for Loss of Control

It goes hand in hand with another key principle that sets digital strategy well apart from many other traditional ways of achieving organizational objectives. One of the counterintuitive lessons of digital and social business is that the network itself can and should do the majority of the work, if you’ll only build a little social capital and then enable interested participants — people, in other words — access to a platform that allows the co-creation of shared value at scale. Oh, and yes, you must provide a good motivation for doing so, but they’ll often figure that out too.

By “majority of the work”, I mean that aligned stakeholders in digital platforms that allow participation will help produce literally nearly everything of value to them, from co-creation of content, activities, ideas, to even the very management, governance, and gardening of the digital ecosystem itself. The lesson here is clear from the consumer world where pioneering services such as YouTube, Facebook, and LinkedIn have long proved the viability and repeatability of this model on a global scale: Today’s most successful open digital platforms create virtually nothing themselves directly. Instead, they have gone through great lengths to provide a carefully constructed platform for their communities of millions and millions to do it indirectly instead.

It’s the asymmetric warfare model for the digital age and far too many organizations do not fully understand how profoundly the rules of business in the digital era have changed. Consequently, they are often at loss on how to lead the organization to better adapt. The test question is this: How can any traditional, internal, do-it-all-the-hard-way model for value creation compete with the hypercharged mass of networked participants — aka social business — that digital savvy organizations have gathering around them and are choreographing to create far richer results, often many orders of magnitude richer than the old guard methods?

The Key to Digital Transformation: Loss of Control

While the consumer space has seen the most success with this model, we now have good evidence that this is happening in the traditional enterprise with organizations like Bosch, Deutsche Bank, and a good number of others, that the same approach is making it into the business world. For the organizations that can fully tap into their stakeholders and inspire them to co-create the future together, nearly anything is possible, and consequently the competitive stakes are unsurprisingly, enormous and have been reshaping industries for the last decade, first media and software companies, and now nearly every industry with the rise of the sharing economy.

But successfully adopting a native digital perspective requires mastering a mindset that traditional management culture is both unfamiliar and rather uncomfortable with. Frankly, of all the top obstacles to digital change, very few are technological. They are almost always barriers created by people, and of the mental barriers, this is perhaps the most foreign concept of all: Deliberately giving up control in a conscious and designed way over your organization’s digital results, while guiding the emergent outcomes in directions that are good for both your business and your stakeholders. As I’ve been clear about before, this very much does not mean all positive control, just the non-essential elements (which admittedly is still most control.)

The motivation for doing so is very clear: Industrial age management structures, while effective (albeit with considerable cost) at producing linear output predictably, actually fail to tap into the lion’s share of potential value. A recent study by Cross, Rebele, and Grant of several hundred organizations only underscores this point:

[The] research we’ve done across more than 300 organizations shows that the distribution of collaborative work is often extremely lopsided. In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. As people become known for being both capable and willing to help, they are drawn into projects and roles of growing importance. Their giving mindset and desire to help others quickly enhances their performance and reputation. As a recent study led by Ning Li, of the University of Iowa, shows, a single “extra miler”—an employee who frequently contributes beyond the scope of his or her role—can drive team performance more than all the other members combined.

The key is understanding why this is such a powerful concept and the key to digital business, is realizing that the more control you give up and relinquish to the network, the more value comes back through peer production. A lot more. The secret lies in having something of value in the first place, that can be somehow enriched by others. This is where having a digital platform becomes essential, one that is designed with an effective architecture of participation that opens up your data, processes, distribution channels, supply chain, or anything of value that is digitally connected in some way to your organization.

The good news is that what a successful architecture of participation looks like, at least applied in generic terms, is increasingly well understood for many important digital business activities, even if it surprisingly is missing even today from many views of the digital enterprise, such as this one from McKinsey.

Common Architectures of Participation

Architecture of Participation Target of Open Participation Extended To Typical Value Change/Magnitude
Crowdsourcing Any type of digital content Interested parties 10x-1000x
Working Out Loud Work narrative, process, product Any stakeholders of work output 2x-10x
Affiliate E-Commerce The digital sales funnel Any interested entity with traffic 1.5x-5x
Open APIs Corporate data External partners desiring to innovate with the data 1.5x-100x
App Stores App ecosystem Developers seeking customers/revenue 100x-1000x
Online Customer Service Community Customer issues/problems Those willing to help 1.3x-3x
Digital Change Agents Platform Unmet digital needs in the org Those interesting in solving them 1.3x-3x

What’s worth noting is the powerful amplification/scaling effect that digital architectures of participation have. That’s because the cost of being connected to everyone who is already connected drops, like everything digital, quickly towards zero, as does the cost of creating and operating a platform that provides your carefully exposed points of participation to those stakeholders.

In effect, nearly no older way of working, managing, or doing business can fight the power laws of digital systems, which continually apply exponential forces to make value creating activities much faster, cheaper, higher volume, better quality, and so on.

This then is one of the key drivers to digital transformation and why it has such urgency. To get to the other side, however, requires a major shift in understanding where the majority of business value comes from, how best to capture it in digital markets, and what kind of thinking it require to design products and services that operate in an increasingly peer produced world. In other words, genuine hard work of creating the cultural, process, and organizational shifts that will lead to digital adaptation.

Perhaps most importantly is understanding is that shifts in mindset are the key to entry to digital business in general. When thousands of startups do little but obsess around the clock about how best to use the mass global connectedness we’ve attained with the Internet to achieve the previously unachievable — and most traditional businesses are not — we will almost certainly miss the very opportunity we were trying to accomplish with our old command and control methods. For sure, the jury is still out for many on the digital economy and who will ultimately be the beneficiaries, but to not even understand the game means that organizations are flying blind. And that’s the worst environment to achieve control one can imagine.

Note: I’d be rather remiss in not giving original credit for the Design for Loss of Control meme to the great JP Rangaswami. The concept goes right to the core of how to remove the many significant barriers that hold back digital in most organizations. Startups famously don’t have those blinders build it, the rest of us have to do a lot of relearning, and JP was instrumental in helping us see that.

Additional Reading

Shifting the Meaning of Business Hierarchy to Community

Designing the New Enterprise: Issues and Strategies

How Online Communities Became Central To How We Work

Communities make just about everything we do today in our organizations better. That was essentially the message at FeverBee SPRINT last week in San Francisco, a confab of several hundred online community practitioners sharing lessons learned and best practices.

To be sure, we have sometimes been able to do what digital communities make possible in other, older ways, but these outdated methods are invariably more time-consuming, costly, and scale up relatively poorly. In fact, it’s the singularly remarkable concept of letting the network do the work that is the foundational concept behind what makes a community so special in how it achieves the many remarkable things that it does.

Today, all of our organizations today are greatly outnumbered by their stakeholders. We always were. But now they are all connected continuously to us and attempting to engage. We’ve also learned that the more that we can somehow engage with them, the more shared value that can be created. One key strategy, is to gather our stakeholders around us digitally, and let them share in the effort. This offloads us and makes engagement at scale manageable, even possible.

How Online Communities Have Matured In Terms of Use

None of this is new or surprising for those who’ve been involved in communities. Created around a group of people with a set of common purposes, communities will go almost entirely of themselves, with its members supporting each other, learning from each other, innovating together, co-creating, and more, with some oversight by that absolutely key role, the online community manager.

So when companies develop purposeful digital venues and enlist the participation of interested stakeholders, those communities will still do those same things, but around more work-focused goals, like customer care, product education, sales enablement, product development, and numerous other use cases. The key concept here is that effort is shared by the entire community, and not provided entirely by the one stakeholder that used to do most or all of the work in a fairly limited, expensive, and slow fashion by comparison: The organization itself.

Getting back to the conference, I was invited by FeverBee’s Richard Millington to provide a look at the near future of community management, the profession that has emerged to make communities thrive and succeed, and which no community can afford not to invest as much as it can, if it hopes to see the desired results. Using the latest case examples and customer results, I took a look at some of the leading examples of what organizations are doing with community, to extrapolate what we all might accomplish with a bit better understanding of what’s possible. Here is what I believe that we’ve learned and what’s next for most of us.

Recent Strategic Lessons of Community Management

    • Community success measures and KPIs are maturing. In some cases, companies have gone well beyond superficial adoption metrics like unique monthly logins, and measured business impact such as process effectiveness, productivity improvements, higher customer satisfaction, and more. This letting organizations that measure and optimize for these outcomes, get outsized results.
    • New ways of working are being developed using a community-first model. Organizations like the industrial product giant Bosch have imagined how their core processes work to literally require community to get the them done, in order to maximize the benefits. I cited how one key process that took 4 weeks, was collapsed to 6 days when it was re-engineered to work using the company’s enterprise social network.
    • Community is becoming the organizing principle for digital experience. At first, using the scale of community as a shock absorber for engaging at scale, companies are finding that community makes virtually every customer and workforce function better by unleashing co-creation. Marketing works better (advocacy), sales works better (community reference checks), operations work better (social exception handling), customer care (community-based support), and so on. The same across digital channels as well, from Web site to mobile application: When community is present, the channel works better.
    • Companies that teach their employees modern digital literacy skills do better with community. Folks like John Stepper at Deutsche Bank are building skills like Working Out Loud to maximize the returns on community.
    • Community ambassador programs are driving sustained results. Just like the data now says that advocacy programs work with customer communities to drive an increase in corporate growth, the communities themselves are using formal champions programs who can be used to spread awareness, skills, and support.
    • Human resources has discovered community. The CHRO in many organizations is now sponsoring enterprise-wide community-based employee engagement efforts, while the rest of the department has discovered what amazing stakeholders are already in our communities, ready to be tapped for recruiting, hiring, onboarding, employee retention programs, learning and development, and knowledge capture.

In short, I believe the future of management itself is significantly described by the emerging role of community management, a skill which is borne out of guiding — and therefore leading — large groups of decentralized people with shared objectives towards common goals. We are witnessing the network-enablement of management in powerful ways, and it’s part of the whole package of digital skills that we must convey to our entire workforce, not just community managers, though they are the ones that need it first.

It was also great to see industry luminaries like Rachel Happe, Kare Anderson, and others at the event show us how far we’ve come with communities.

The keynote deck I used for FeverBee SPRINT 2015 in San Francisco can be found on Slideshare below:

What Lies at the Cutting Edge of Online Communities and Community Management

Additional Reading:

Defining the Next Generation Enterprise with Community

Is the Window Closing on Enterprise Customer Communities?