Do we still have many things to learn on community management ?

Summary : there’s something paradoxical with community management : so many matter and cases available and still so much difficulty when it comes to implement. The common conclusion is that communities are still a very young matter and that we’ve still a lot to learn about it. And what if we were much more mature than we think ? As a matter of fact there are two things a community manager, even very talented, will never succeed in : build vibrant communities in a hostile enterprise context and apply the concept to what is not communities. As for the rest, real communities work pretty well.

Recently I was having a look at the great work of the Community Roundtable, thinking of a couple of panels I was on with recognized practitioners, looking at  this deck from Luis Suarez and reading Rawn Shah’s Social Networking for Business again…and I come to ask myself one question. How is it possible that organizations are entangled in their community management issues, most of all internally, with so many knowledge, experience and practitioners willing to share with their peers available today ?

Of course everybody understand that there’s no magic wand that works in any case. But we have enough feedbacks to know how to start, host, sustain and make the most out of a community provided it’s been properly qualified beforehand.

Depending on the objectives of the community, the profile of the participants and the expected benefits as well as on external factors such as corporate culture and management model, there are conclusions to draw in terms of action plans to implement. Or on the uselessness of plans since, when things make sense for everyone in a business context and when the enterprise context does not make participation risky, the winning strategy is often to let users in charge rather than loosing one’s breath trying to make people adopt optional counter-natural behaviors.

Of course the start often looks like groping one’s way along but things get fixed quickly and a perennial system easily emerges over time.

Some will say that doing (or letting do), when it’s about something new, needs courage and that courage is the only thing you can’t get or buy from others. But that doesn’t explain everything.

It’s also obvious that when context elements that are external to communities and proper to the organization are unfavorable, courage, talent and the hard work of very motivated people won’t be enough if their only lever is community animation through content publishing in a context that’s hostile to communities. Don’t shoot the community manager if nothing is done to change the context.

I don’t mean communities are becoming the new way to execute processes. Process design and execution can be crowdsourced (and I’ll elabore much more on this point in a couple of weeds) but that’s still restricted to the concerned people. On the other hand, these people can rely on peers or experts communities at given moments…if these communities make sense in the enterprise context. But that’s not my point today.

We rightfully reproached organizations for having tried to make anything fit into ERPs for the last 20 years, for having tried to turn anything into a rigid, invariable, dehumanized model, sustaining the illusion of a world under control, fully predictable. We saw the limits of this approach. Not because nothing could fit in the model but because not everything could fit in.

Today we can see the exact opposite happening : communities (and social networks) are seen as the response to any problem. Even worse : a way to solve a problem that has to do with organization, structure, management without changing anything in terms of…organization, structure and management. The magic wand of the soft self-fulfilling change that happens without having to change anything oneself.

Are be about to hit an iceberg ? Let’s start a anti-iceberg community. Our management model is oppressive ? Let’s start the community of the joy of life. Our project is running late ? Turn the project team into a community. Our products suck ? Let’s mobilize our communities on the web !

Communities and social networks should not become the new ERPs and should not be seen as the latter were at their beginning. They’re made to address some kinds of problems in a given way but won’t be of any help for issues they’re not designed to address by nature.

So, to answer the original question, maybe we are much more advanced in community management than we think. Maybe that, even it’s sure that we’ll keep on improving and refining over time, we don’t have new fundamental things to learn. Except two : stop believing that acting on the community is enough to not act on the external context and, most of all, stop believing that it’s possible to twist the concept to make it work in situations it’s not made for.

Networks and communities are not the only way to apply social principles to the organizations. That’s why applying principles is better than duplicating solutions that only work in a specific case.

Meanwhile, true communities are living quite well when they are not in an hostile context. Either they’re enterprise-managed…or not.



Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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