Community management: The 'essential' capability of successful Enterprise 2.0 efforts

It's not a skill that's been widely understood until quite recently, however community management has begun to move to the forefront of discussions about enterprise social computing as the use of social tools begins to climb the maturity curve. Now it's increasingly proving not just useful but a critical component of Enterprise 2.0 efforts despite an often vague understanding of what it is and where it should be situated in the org chart.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

You wouldn't provide new software to users without proper support. The case must be made that you can't do the same with social environments. It's not a skill that's been widely understood until quite recently, however community management has begun to move to the forefront of discussions about enterprise social computing as the use of social tools begins to climb the maturity curve. Now community management is increasingly proving not just useful but a critical component of Enterprise 2.0 efforts despite an often vague understanding of what it is and where it should be situated in the org chart.

Community management itself can be sensitive subject in the social media arena. Some believe that to be authentic and to grow properly online communities should be as completely self-organized and "unmanaged" as possible. In this vision they should be free of corporate heavy-handedness or even immediate business requirements, thereby allowed to grow organically and naturally to fruition without the chill of censorship or excessive expectation. In this view, as the utility of things like PCs, e-mail, and computer networks became self-evident, workers naturally found all sorts of good uses for them, and the same goes for social tools.

Others believe that there must be some central oversight as well as guidance and support to accomplish anything useful with social software, especially in a business context. This view prescribes the need to actively deal with any potential risks such as inappropriate use, low return on investment, and lack of alignment with business goals. In other words, the business must also have a seat at the community table while helping it ensure the effort has what it needs to succeed.

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The truth is probably somewhere in between and most likely a bit more towards self-interested oversight than in the other direction. But how can we really determine this? Although my own research has started showing a strong correlation between successful Enterprise 2.0 efforts and well-organized and properly resourced community management, I wanted a broader, more current snapshot of what's really happening with community management and the use of social tools today. To do this I needed some good data and luckily for me I knew just who I could ask.

Surveying Enterprise 2.0 practitioners

So a couple of weeks ago I reached out to my good friend Susan Scrupski, a maven of all things social computing in the enterprise and -- not coincidentally -- founder of The 2.0 Adoption Council, a rapidly growing private community of practitioners of Enterprise 2.0 whose 100+ members are mostly from large Fortune 500 efforts. This group, which represents some of the largest companies in the world, might be able to give us a snapshot of their experiences with community management. I inquired if she could ask the council the following question:

How important has community management been to your Enterprise 2.0 effort?
A. Essential
B. Important
C. Not that important

Susan kindly agreed and recently reported the results to me. Although I'd been pretty confident that community management was going to score well based on 1) what I've seen from other projects, 2) a growing body of anecdotal information, and 3) the findings from case studies that I've seen reported recently, I was still pretty surprised at the results, even given the small but influential sample, which you can see below:

Community Management Survey Results:

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The vast majority of the respondents, 95% of them, rated community management as "essential" to their Enterprise 2.0 effort. The remainder listed it as "important". None of them reported it as "Not that important". While there is always the possibility of groupthink in results like this, it's fascinating that community management, while still barely rating a few lines of description in pro-Web 2.0 sources such as Wikipedia, has become such an important aspect of online communities.

Some of the comments that respondents to the survey gave are worth repeating here as well, which I do below with permission from Susan. For example, I especially liked this vignette of community management at CSC, a large, well-known business services company:

While the whole idea of Enterprise 2.0 has at its source crowdsourcing and peer support/interaction - some times users just need guidance and support. Users will have questions. You need someone worrying about the right help content, seeding discussions, guiding users as they ask questions. And in fact, you don't just need one community manager, but a solid network of community managers. So yes, we have one 'community manager' so to speak (actually several of us share the role) but then many 'chief champions'... No matter how easy a tool is to use, there are still those that have questions and need 'community coaching' (I'm talking about the business piece of community leadership) and general guidance. -- Claire Flanagan, Sr. Mgr, KM and Enterprise Social Software Strategy, CSC

There were also more general statements of affirmation like:

I can't imagine a success story without some manner of engagement/governance/particpation. -- Megan Murray, Community Manager/Project Coordinator, Booz Allen Hamilton

We also saw some of the shades of Enterprise 2.0 failure causes such as the tool-first instead of community-first approach as well as the recurrence of the now-familiar suitability of SharePoint for Enterprise 2.0 discussion. Both of these, as we've seen on other projects as well, tends to leave community management efforts under funded and without the resources to make the effort succeed:

SharePoint has been pitched as a plug-and-play solution for collaboration and community. We now know it is certainly not - but this expectation has resulted in under-budgeting for community management resources. Adjusting that expectation, and the implications for the "TCO" of SharePoint will be essential for Enterprise 2.0 and community building to succeed. I think this applies to any collaboration or e20 solution, not just SharePoint: Vendors and IT groups who pitch a platform may be failing to account for the community leader role as a key element to success. -- Abigail Lewis-Bowen, Johnson & Johnson

Though the act of community management has been taking place since the advent of online conversations going back to newsgroups, open source development projects, and discussion forums, it's only now starting to get serious attention as a technique for managing social collaboration within organizations.

Community Management: Not new but newly focused on social collaboration

But what exactly does a community manager do? A lot as it turns out. While in my experience there's been a challenge in even determining where the community management function should reside (IT help desk, customer service, corporate communications, HR, learning, etc.) it is a skill that sits right at the cross roads of many different essential functions. Those who engage in it must be competent in everything from the social tools themselves to budgeting, marketing, project management, recruiting, evangelism, and more. A community manager must be a true jack of all trades.

Part of the need for this wide skill set seems to be that since community management as a practice is still largely understood poorly (and consequently the need for it can be hard to understand) it is thus often poorly resourced. The tasks of community management then often devolve onto the shoulders of those trying to realize their Enterprise 2.0 effort, but without the skills or time to do it. This does mean that a social computing initiative can end up being more work than originally planned over the long haul than it appears to be to outsiders or first-timers. Either that or the community doesn't get the support it needs day-in and day-out to thrive. In this case it often languishes.

The hard won lesson of many early Enterprise 2.0 practitioners: You must plan for community management from the very beginning.

Previous enterprise-class communication tools -- and even many older collaboration tools -- required only some administration and occasionally a bit of active maintenance. Although some real intervention is occasionally required -- spam is often the biggest problem -- it's a low overhead world. The more visible and transformative -- and occasionally messier -- world of social interaction and group behavior is a different dynamic and requires a new social support function. The proportion of community management staff to community members does still seem to be reasonably low however, but it's certainly not zero. SAP for example, which runs one of the world's largest online communities with over a million members, depends on a surprisingly small number of staff, albeit still overworked, as community manager Craig Cmehill has reported to me in the past.

Related: Twelve best practices for online community management.

But unfortunately for many first time Enterprise 2.0 efforts, the official community management staff is often effectively nobody, often just a few non-dedicated volunteers. This is the lesson that the industry has begun to absorb and we're seeing more and more emphasis and attempts to right-size community staff. What is the correct number? It's one of those numbers that's so frustratingly going to vary by company and local culture. You can even see the from the responses to the survey above that the role is often spread across a large number of self-identified stakeholders. But if the online world is any indication (and indeed, its inhabitants are often much more poorly behaved), the ratio of community members to community managers is likely thousands to one and not hundreds.

Being successful with community management

Here is what we are seeing this year around the nurturing and development of social collaboration in the enterprise. These will likely be the successful factors with community management and Enterprise 2.0:

  • Make a strong and early case for community management resources. Community management can be identified not only as a risk mitigator but also as a way to ensure that participation takes place, members can get help, ROI is measured, and business goals are being met. 25% of project budget seems to be a rule of thumb as an ongoing cost and remember that it's not just for the life of implementation, but indeed throughout the life of the community. Community management will actually be an event larger component of total cost of ownership in an Enterprise 2.0 effort over time. Ultimately, you wouldn't put new IT tools out to users without proper support, the case must be made that you can't do the same with social environments. Emphasize that community management is not ruinously expensive but must be accounted for.
  • Avoid the tool-first discussion as much as possible. Unfortunately, sometimes talking about the tools of Enterprise 2.0 is the only way to get a social collaboration conversation started, depending on your audience. But though good social technology is a prerequisite, it's the smaller and less interesting part of the story. Push tool-first discussions into a business direction quickly but firmly and keep it concrete and practical. Make a case for things like solving specific ongoing challenges you are aware of related to communication, the discovery of knowledge, innovation, and transparency. Do everything possible to turn it into a conversation about business benefits instead of tools. Do this even knowing that many of the best outcomes won't be predictable and you may not even get the credit for these.
  • Select versatile, effective, positive communicators that have social media competency as community managers . Technical skills, organizational skills, willingness to learn, good verbal and written skills, and emotional intelligence are all traits of a good community manager. So is a constructive and supportive attitude. Prior experience with social media is also a must. Other than that, the rest is probably learnable. Your community managers will be the most public face of your Enteprise 2.0 effort and will help drive the changes in corporate culture required to move to social tools, select them well.
  • Measure your community. Most people generally manage to what they measure. If you aren't looking at overall levels of participation, growth rate of new members, making lists of the recently disengaged and following up on them, etc. then you aren't managing your social environment. Understanding the overall health and momentum in your community, directly responding to it, and doing it every day will be vital for the long-term success of your effort. Again, this takes time, resources, and skills, hence the community management budget discussion above. Remember, most people can't opt out of corporate e-mail, but they can opt out of Enterprise 2.0 channels, at least for now.
  • The future of community management is specialization. Right now community management staffs tend to be small and overworked, with too many types of tasks to do that no small group could all be strong at. Community management is likely to mature fairly quickly as a discipline and begin, like any professional, to branch out into specific areas of knowledge. Plan for this and identify which skills your staff are best at and beginning nurturing dedicated excellence, even if it's just by routing it to those who know better for now. Don't forget that the next step in community management may also be the pressure (or attractiveness, depending on who you are) of outsourcing to professionals, as much as they may not seem to make sense in a highly social environment. Though there's no data of any kind on this yet, it's something that may also happen, for better or worse. Be ready for it and understand the pros and cons, we may see this turn into a viable option for some efforts.

What are you seeing with community management and social collaboration? Is it really as important as it seems to be becoming?

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