Community management is like cholesterol

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Summary :we’re still fare from being done with discussions on enterprise community management. More complex to implement that it seemed, this kind of system did not always keep its promises and results range from the best to the worse to such an extent that some start to wonder if it’s really worth. Among poorly managed plans and doubts on the very role of community managers, many organizations are still in a state of uncertainty. In the end it’s all about the project and operational alignment. There are two kind of community management systems : those that are the consequence of a project and integrate communities into the operating modes and those who are the result of the attention paid to the existence of communities without any will to leverage them to create value (or only with words). When community management has no other reason to exist that the existence of communities it becomes useless. When it’s the result of an ambition to turn the community potential into an asset that can be leveraged, it can lead to awesome results.

There are still a lot of discussions and questionings on internal community management. After the “everything is a community” era that caused the rise of armies of community managers and the “community manager : bullshit of the year” era that logically came after when the limits of the system were reached as well as those of its implementation by, at best, idealists or, at worse, sorcerer’s apprentices, organizations seem to be lost.

Community management logics are an undisputable potential for organizations when wisely used but are not the solution to every problem and, despite of their apparent simplicity, need a lot of specific skills. This explain that after the times of overexpectations came the time of disappointment.

First, we have to distinguish between discussions related to community management and community managers. If community management approaches are necessary, lots of questions remains about community managers, their role and profile. There’s no doubt community managers will stay for long to manage external communities, things are different when talking about internal communities.

As a matter of fact it’s logical to think that, in a couple of years, community management skills will be part of everyone’s toolbox and there will be no more need for specific people. I fully subscribe to this point of view. But, unlike some people, I won’t pretend that managers will become community managers or, at least, not in an exclusive way. If it’s an unavoidable evolution of managers skills, methods and way of doing their job, it’s far from being enough. Managers have to set objectives, have also have a right to give orders and have to be able take disciplinary actions, what is not a part of a community manager role. They’ll have to combine both dimensions, what won’t be easy at all.

Then we have to keep in mind that there is no consensus on the level at which community managers should operate. A wide range of situations exists, from the senior manager in charge of managing a global system to the recently graduated person in charge of having the field and making some noise. The consequence is that there were lots of attempts to formalize different responsibility levels, with community managers, social media directors etc… Another big mistake was made in France where “management” was often translated into animation what causes that, with the same job title, lots of different profiles can be found.

That said, let’s come back to the concern that worries many organizations because of the varying results that can be observed here and there : is community management worth, are benefits worth the effort, or should organizations let communities live, die (and even not come to life) by themselves ?

The answer can be summed up in one analogy : community management is the corporate cholesterol.

We all know that there is the “good” and the “bad” cholesterol. The first is essential and this physiological need makes use eat such or such thing. The second is bad for our health, does not meet any need and is caused by…what we eat too. The difference between the good and the bad stands in a few words : being the response to a need or an undesired consequence. So, food can be either the solution or the problem. Replace cholesterol with community management and food with communities and you have understand the nature of the problem.

As I wrote in a previous post, no one can create a community only by saying “I want this community to exist”. Removing the barriers that prevent existing communities to work and building  community awareness look like a better resource allocation. The example of CISCO mentioned in the same post shows us how the stacking of community systems and traditional organizational ones can quickly become counter-productive. In the same way of thinking, some start to say that in a very competitive context where responsiveness and quick decision making is key, those systems are a waste of time and harm the effectiveness of the organization. Truth probably stands in between an in systems joint-design instead of staking but since the question is there, it will be hard to avoid answering. I remind of a large company that, at the beginning of the crisis, what considering the opportunity of a community approach to make their employees have things to do in a period of low activity. They were more convinced by communities as a way to distract people from what was really happening than by their ability to make the organization more successful.

As a matter of fact, we can see two kinds of community systems : those who are means to support a plan and those that are implemented because there are communities and something has to be done. In the first case they serve the organization, in the second they become their own purpose.

For what’s about the strategic approach to community management as a system aligned with business needs and turning communities into assets that can be leveraged, I let you read the many posts I’ve already written and advise you to read all the great things produced by the Community Roundtable.

For the other approach, let’s mention something that we all have observed. There are latent communities in the organization so let’s build a community management systems. And, despite of the efforts of the people in charge, nothing is done to make the organization learn from communities, make them contribute to the intangible capital or contribute to deliver process that have so many exceptions that only collective intelligence can make them work. (Read here for further details on processes and enterprise 2.0). In concrete words, I remind of a community tied to a strategic corporate plan that was producing a lot of valuable insights but was useless because the people managing the project decided not to pay any attention to this “corporate toy”. In such cases we have to admit that the energy spent by both community managers and community members was wasted and that their time should have been allocated differently. There was a latent community, someone was designed to deal with it but there was no link with real operations.

Note that the situation is quite the same with external relationships. There’s a lot of differences between building a value creation plan that, at a given moment, will rely on customers, influencers… communities and say “we have communities, let’s manage them” without having any plan to co-create value for and with these communities. In this kind of situation, the community manager is often blamed by both community members and his superiors …