E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

From the blog

Don’t Underestimate the Value of Your Community Managers

Gran Canaria - Surroundings of Roque Nublo - The Monk in the SpringIf earlier on this week we were talking about the increasing concerns on how high level executives, CIOs mainly, keep taking for granted social collaboration and how perhaps they need to shift gears and stop considering it’s a given, here’s today’s blog post where I will reflect on a recent article put together by the always insightful Rachel Happe at The Community Roundtable under the troubling heading “The Community Strategist Squeeze“, where she comes to highlight the current state of what’s been asked of community managers, facilitators, leaders, builders, stewards, or whatever other term you would want to use: deliver plenty more with a lot less. And the more you do of that, the much better off for the business. Never mind the community facilitators. They never have. 

As you well know, Rachel is the co-founder of The Community Roundtable, along with Jim Storer, a rather smart, helpful and very resourceful and talented peer to peer network of community builders that has been around for a couple of years already and that time and time again they keep producing some of the most amazing reports, and other brilliant deliverables, that one can find out there on the Social Web around the art of managing online communities, whether internal or external. Their latest example is The 2012 State of Community Management, a superb white paper / report that I strongly would encourage everyone to read and go through to see what’s happening in this space of facilitating effectively online communities and where we are at that daunting, yet, exciting and rather rewarding task.

I will be putting together another separate blog entry at a later time on that very same report, but going back into the actual piece that Rachel wrote I thought it was incredibly revealing how little things have changed in the last 10 to 15 years, perhaps even more, with regards to online communities. Yes, I know, we do have nowadays better community tooling all around with all of these emergent social technologies, but it looks like some of the most fundamental, deep routed problems are still alive and kicking: businesses keep ignoring the value of online communities, and continue to treat them as just another project resource. When we all know that’s not the case, quite the opposite. They are rather dynamic, living organisms that keep corporations alive providing them with an identity, a corporate culture difficult to surpass and, above all, a strong sense of belonging and ownership by the community members that cannot be found, nor seen, anywhere else within an organization to the point of going the extra mile in getting work done. Just because they all share that common passion: wanting to help and learn from others on that particular subject matter that gathers them around.

Yet, online communities keep being treated as mere resources you can exploit to your own abilities, needs and wants, without realising that they, too, have got their own that you, as a business, would need to feed and nurture if you would want to keep your communities alive in the medium, long term. Communities are different beasts. They are not (project) teams, they are not networks, nor organisations, yet we keep treating them as if they were. See? Nothing much has changed since the late 90s and beginning of the 2000s. 

Back in the day, around 2000, when I was still doing traditional Knowledge Management, Collaboration and Learning, plenty of businesses invested, initially, rather heavily, on the concept of Communities of Practice, the traditional formalised, structured communities and for a good while they were rather successful. However, as time moved on and as the businesses realised how they could start squeezing them one by one to no end, demanding more and more by the minute from their community leaders, having and providing less, as well as the members, with very little in return, the whole model broke down when people stopped relying on them to a great extent. 

No, they didn’t disappear, they never disappeared; in fact, they have always been there, but what at some point were the core critical engine of interactions amongst knowledge workers soon turned out to be that essential resource that everyone could poach to no end till they would eventually drain them to die a painful death by refusing to nurture and feed back some of the most essential, key roles in those same communities; mainly, community leaders / builders / facilitators, core team, knowledge brokers, community managers, etc. etc. 

You would have expected that with the emergence of better community tooling with social networking tools that things would have improved quite a bit and the reality is that they have made things a whole lot better. Key concepts like social capital skills, open knowledge sharing, collaboration, engagement, commitment, passion, trust, etc. etc. are stronger than ever before, but, unfortunately, so is the community leaders squeeze that Rachel talks about on that article, highlighting, once again, how businesses seem to have put very very few resources on helping facilitate effectively online communities hoping that everything will work out and that things would stick around. Yet another time.

The thing is that they won’t. If not, judge for yourselves, to quote Rachel, on the list of pressures that community leaders are facing at the moment: 

  • “To assess, reconcile and coordinate the ‘social’ approach across a wide range of enterprise functions
  • To justify not just their progress but the ROI when many are still in a highly fluid and experimental state
  • To train the entire organization on social media, internal social software, social business, social processes and workflows and community management
  • To educate legal, HR and compliance groups about the dynamics and specifics of online social environments
  • To understand and report back what is going on – from a conversational perspective – in the online environment
  • To share their expertise both internally and externally with a wide variety of groups
  • To hire a set of individuals that are hard to find and which their HR departments don’t really understand and then mentor and educate those groups quickly
  • To coach executives individually
  • To keep up with the ever changing technologies and analytics options
  • To integrate internal social environments with closed communities with open communities and with public social channels and none-hosted communities in their markets
  • To set up enterprise-wide governance processes and regularly coordinate efforts and approaches globally
  • To help the entire organization see the opportunities that social approaches might bring to specific workflows and functions”

And I am certain that’s just a pretty small list of those current pressures. I bet you folks out there would be able to share plenty more in the comments below about the ones you yourselves are currently facing at the moment (Feel free to share them across, if you feel they would contribute into raising some further awareness about them on this post). The reality is that businesses have been playing with fire for a long while, as Rachel quotes accurately with this trend of thought: 

“[…] the limited investment in and strategic exposure of social and community teams is one of the biggest risks to progress in the social business and community space right now  – both in making progress and in keeping staff

Burnout comes up pretty high as perhaps one of the main reasons that could take the whole thing apart and disrupt it in such a way that it would be rather tough to recover from. And that’s just one of the potentially negative consequences. I am sure there are more. Yet, while I am putting together these thoughts, and as I keep thinking what may well be the potential solution, I can’t help to acknowledge that perhaps the very same ecosystem that we created in the first place around community leaders is the one that’s causing and creating such squeeze.

If you think of community management as an outsourced activity away from the business and its core activities, which I would think most people would assume it is, right there you have got the main problem. With community management what we are basically telling businesses out loud, even at the age of the Social Web, is that they don’t have to worry about doing such piece of work themselves, i.e. maintaing, facilitating, nurturing online social interactions in communities, because someone else will do it for them and effectively enough that I can squeeze them to provide me with what I need as a business and don’t provide much in return, as a result of it.

Now I do see the value of having community builders, facilitators, stewards, leaders and whatever other term that you would want to use in this context. I think they are critical to help a community succeed, pretty much like any other of the traditional community job roles themselves, but I’m starting to think that we shouldn’t have put too much preeminence and paramount importance in the exclusivity of their role, because right there we have given carte blanche to businesses to disengage, withdraw support, sponsorship, leadership and what not, thinking that those smart community managers would be able to pull it off themselves, when we know that they would have had a much better and easier job if the businesses would be involved in helping manage and facilitate those communities themselves. 

So if in my previous blog post I questioned how CIOs should not take for granted social collaboration, because it’s not going to happen just like that, I would come to question as well how we are already passed the tipping point as a business to understand how helping your online communities, as well as your community managers, is going to be a critical core activity of your day to day business operations. And the easiest way of achieving that is realising that you, as a major driver of that business, company, organization, i.e. as an executive, with your business priorities, would need to take charge, come forward and become another community facilitator / builder, so that you could understand each and everyone of those pressures that Rachel mentioned above in order to help address and fix them accordingly, so that online community management activity is no longer seen as an outsourced activity, but more of an integrated, critical, business process of your day to day operations. The way it should be. The way it should have always been.

Only then would we be capable of seeing the job role of community managers survive for the next decades to come. Failure to do that would eventually mean we are already starting to witness the slow, painful death of what it is like being a community manager. Squeezed to no end because their business just didn’t understand how communities operate, how they could help bring further along more business value and sustainable growth and eventually how they themselves, the businesses, didn’t understand right from the beginning that a successful online community management strategy begins with them being at the forefront supporting the efforts, in every which way, from those with a passion to transform the way we do work through networks and communities versus traditional top-down hierarchies.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Wirearchy!

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  1. Luis – thank you for you additional commentary here. It’s interesting to hear your perspective and one of the reasons I wrote the post is because it poses the same risks as it once did. These ‘social business’ initiatives that everyone is so excited about will die a slow death if they don’t have proper staffing and resources. Because we have a bit of a pulpit off of which to advocate I think it’s critical that we do so and I appreciate your help in that effort!

  2. Great post Luis! Your comments about outsourced community management reminded me of some recent experiences. I’ll call it “The Dark Side of Success.” If managers – community, people, project – are doing a great job of keeping things together, moving forward, applying bandaids, making do, then their efforts demonstrate success and there is no need for executives to participate. This success shields executives from entering the social networks themselves and talking directly to employees and customers.

    For all my big talk of supporting the notion of failure, it is still such a scary prospect to allow something to fail. So we continue to scramble and smile. But when we do this, how do the leaders know that we need help? I think sometimes it might be better to let something fail spectacularly – SPLAT! – in order for the business to take the need seriously. But in my direct experience, I have yet to see this happen.

  3. Great post – and thanks to Rachel Happe for initiating! But perhaps Luis I would question your emphasis in places and look at it slightly differently.
    “Smart” community managers, apart from having other colleagues to help administrate their community, will foster community leadership from the within the organisation and develop a network of “Local” community managers to help facilitate, nurture and train at ground level. This does not preclude senior executive involvement in the role of approver, affirmer and facilitator – but to achieve longevity you need to penetrate the community more tangibly at ground level – because the real bottleneck to community success is not necessarily executive level – but middle management where open social collaboration poses more of a perceived “threat”.

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