The burnout risks for E2.0 community managers

Dion Hinchcliffe's piece on community management surprised me. There is a sense that Dion is trying to lay down some ground rules in an area that is too new for anyone to draw anything other than tentative and early stage conclusions.

Dion Hinchcliffe's piece on community management surprised me. There is a sense that Dion is trying to lay down some ground rules in an area that is too new for anyone to draw anything other than tentative and early stage conclusions. That's not to say that conclusions are incorrect. There is plenty with which to agree but it is not enough. There is a gaping hole down which many otherwise well intended projects will fall.

Culture is sometimes a bone of contention in community building and maintenance discussions but history and experience tell us that many large organizations develop cultures either accidentally or by design. There is an excellent article from M Jason Martin, the University of Florida from 2006 where he says:

Culture permeates all aspects of any society. It acts as the basic fabric that binds people together. Culture dictates tastes in music, clothes, and even the political and philosophical views of a group of people. Culture is not only shared, but it is deep and stable.[1] However, culture does not exist simply as a societal phenomenon. Organizations, both large and small, adhere to a culture. Organizational culture determines how an organization operates and how its members frame events both inside and outside the organization.

Culture has to be accommodated in community management. It isn't easy and as Dion implies, the role is often poorly resourced, adding to the difficulties faced.

As someone who has been closely involved in helping a large organization figure out a collaboration strategy, execute against it with social tools, hit a whole bunch of potholes and have as yet to fully emerge out the other side after two years, I'm reasonably familiar with the issues he raises and then some.

It should be no surprise that the baseline issue: should these kinds of endeavor have community management? produced a 95% positive response rate.

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.

Regardless of whether a project is IT related or not, why would you not want people in leadership roles? This was something Booz Allen alluded to in Dion's quoted text yet I disagree with Dion's assertion that community managers need to be 'jacks 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 an Enterprise 2.0 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 and ultimately languishes.

It must be patently obvious that no one person can hope to carry all roles, especially as it relates to a large organization. So while the 'need' may be a matter of practical reality for some organizations, it is a falsehood for companies to assume that should be the norm. Having said that, it is an easy mistake to make and one where I have seen community managers driven out of organizations simply because they couldn't keep 10 balls in the air. Organizations massively under-estimate the need for people skills as integral to community projects and that success will be a lot harder to achieve than they imagine.

I lay the responsibility for this kind of failure at the door of those who have made community sound much easier than is the reality. It leads to the folly of believing that because E2.0 tools are relatively inexpensive, the implementation and management costs should be equally trivial. I'd say that usability issues aside, there is no correlation between tools cost and people requirements in either E2.0 management or operational roles. Especially in the crucial early stages. There is a gulf between running an individual blog, collective blog or forum (as examples) where there are naturally occurring common interests and the strictures under which those carrying out these types of project in a large enterprise labor.

On an individual blog I am the arbiter of what needs to be done. In a collective blog, the same pretty much applies albeit there may be gardening and recruitment duties. The same is true for forums, something Dion acknowledges. I get to choose the tech, set the rules, the levels of engagement, what constitutes success and so on. I am in control. That luxury doesn't exist in the enterprise where all manner of political issues and policy barricades raise their head at different times to intentionally and unintentionally frustrate even the most well meaning endeavors.

In the project I have been working, the transformational goal is only do-able when broken down into its constituent components and even then there are multiple challenges. However, the challenges are predictable if you have an understanding of people and organization that is specific to the organization. Even then, surprises will arise.

A significant part of executing against the over arching goal requires the organization to gain trust from its internal community. It's a critical stepping stone. This has been a problem for many years because of issues described by sociologists as related to the tensions that exist between class (or power) structures. Everyone knew it exists but how do you overcome deep rooted suspicions many felt as the project started to roll out?

There are no easy answers because while the community might have been listening, it wasn't necessarily responding. Silence can be an energy sapper. Getting agreement to tear down part of the 'access to view wall' was a tough ask. Why? Because this particular organization is not used to the external scrutiny implied by having anyone view what it thinks. That meant even though the goal is plain for all to see and well articulated, few understood the implications until faced with them and only then started to raise objections. In the early stages, much rested upon community managers without them necessarily having all the tools or authority with which to operate effectively. Those were challenging times.

In management terms there were no best practices upon which to draw because no-one had any reference points against which to make reasonable judgments, except by falling back on common sense. However, we could draw from a known history of behaviors and work with that. That meant a requirement for active help from people deeply seasoned in the culture of the organization as part of the need to support community management. Sometimes it was available and sometimes not.

Dion tentatively suggests that:

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.

I agree with most of the early part of his statement as it relates to communication and people skills in exactly the same way I'd expect to see those qualities as a pre-requisite for any project management role. His final statement about the rest being 'probably learnable' is thin. What does this mean and if it is learnable then where are the teachers? If we're talking about the people and cultural issues I recognize then 'learnable' might just be tenable if community managers have the support of experts in this area and can provide effective skills transfer. Even then I have my doubts.

I'll give another example as it relates to the experience of community managers which might be familiar.

In another large community in which I am involved, a tiny fraction of the total universe of people registered on the system are actively engaged on a day to day basis. That's OK because there is plenty of content emerging in blogs, wikis and the like. Some of the keen ones have evolved into becoming something similar to what Dion describes as 'volunteer managers,' often by accident and with roles that reflect individual topic interests. The active people are motivated by many different things, mostly altruistic or from a natural curiosity to learn. In other words, they have that 'what's in it for me' thing baked into their experience and desire to give back to the community.

Albeit we rarely meet in the real world, a number of those who are most active have become good colleagues, establishing regular communications both formal and informal. It has taken time to reach that point, a natural function of the trust all people have to build with one another. A big part of the 'job' comes in helping each other keep sane for precisely the political reasons that drive different agendas within any large scale business.

It is not uncommon for one or other of us to contact a peer to vent about one problem or another independent of the management hierarchy. Sound familiar? It is simply another expression of the informal organization that exists in many businesses that keeps it ticking along. It is reflective of the problems faced by those who truly believe in what the organization is attempting to achieve. They are not motivated by externalities like money and power but out of a genuine sense of wanting to do something good and valuable. Even the oft vaunted notion of 'recognition' as a reward mechanism doesn't seem to count that much to this group. Management doesn't have that insight, often being driven by a different set of objectives that are rooted in things that are tangible. The measurement stuff of which Dion writes.

This dichotomy is not going away anytime soon. The idea that knowledge shared is a good thing may be obvious and logical to those of us who see its value but it counts for nothing when people believe that knowledge is their personal IP. The fact that the tools are often regarded as a departmental spend and start with masses of apparent enthusiasm only compounds the problem.

Those who work tirelessly to help build community based on these ideas can end up burnt out. The emotional drain from working on the many problems that arise in the community building phase while balancing management needs is exhausting and sometimes misunderstood. This is a predictable outcome if you know something about organizational social psychology and stress management. Here is a very good layman's explanation for this phenomenon. The Mayo clinic provides an excellent primer for those who are not aware of the issue. Wikipedia offers a reasonable starting point with plenty of well chosen references.

Anyone who has experienced burn out will know it is a frightening and debilitating experience for which there is no quick fix. In other words, the skills that Dion identifies may well be appropriate and desirable at a technical level but they run the risk of triggering serious and undesirable effects. The reason this seems to arise is because - at least in the community managers I have met - there is a sense of caring that accompanies the job in much the same way that a child might look after an aging parent.

There is therefore a need to have people on board who are capable of traversing and negotiating the organization's socio-political elements with impunity while championing the champions. In my view, the only way that can be successfully fulfilled (today) is through the use of experienced external agents. That is because - and again history teaches us this - external agents have no vested interest so can be trusted as impartial even though at times they may say exactly the same things as their internal counterparts. They can use that detachment in much the same way a psychologist uses detachment to stand back from problems and objectively analyze the symptoms in ways that insiders cannot.

One might think these specialists could be drawn from the ranks of the large scale consultants but I see little evidence of that as a viable way forward. Unfortunately, there are precious few of them around coupled with a lack of willingness by management to pay for something that may easily require a long term commitment. Short of an apocalyptic event of the kind that gave the US Intelligence Community a sharp kick in the backside, culture is something that takes some moving (as Martin suggests), even with the most persuasive of arguments.

Internal agents can rarely achieve the kind of movement that might be necessary unless they're sitting in the CEO's chair and even then change is not a done deal. I'm not even sure it is feasible to think in terms of skills transfer because internal agents are often part of the embedded political processes. I am prepared to be persuaded because this 'stuff' is new and I'm not sure we know enough to make a firm assessment.

I'm basing my current assessment on years of watching BPR fail only to be followed by what we see today and as a social psychologist by training who has seen multiple cases of stress related breakdown. It sounds dramatic but when you think about it, moving a culture bears many of the characteristics of dealing with common mental health problems. Expecting community managers to operate in tiny numbers to achieve that in say a 10,000 person business is asking the impossible.

Dion argues the need for external specialists in the context of community management is something for the near future. I argue it should be there from the start in the disciplines I have identified. Dealing with people is never trivial yet that is at the core of what we should be discussing. The rest can wait. It's either that or in 10 years' time we'll be reprising Oliver Marks' post on fad v business value and wondering why.

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