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.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

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.

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