A group of people on a mountain, silhouetted.

A former colleague recently asked me about online communities at work, their value in supporting strategic activities and how to make the most of them. Kirsten Wagenaar and I discussed this and I decided to write a blog as a summary of that discussion.

What types of internal communities are there?

An organisation may have several different types of communities within its walls. These communities can be offline or online. They can have varying degrees of formality, each offering value for organisations in different ways. Such as:

  • Communities of practice: Focused on a common role or function.
  • Communities of action: Structurally open with a focus on change. Design communities for example.
  • Communities of circumstances: Focused on life experience, such as women in tech, or LGBTQ communities. Such groups help create a more inclusive workplace and can help support wider initiatives to tackle workplace bias and diversity challenges.
  • Communities of interest: Often not directly work related, focused around hobbies and pastimes. These groups can help colleagues to connect informally and offer subtle benefits for strengthening connections, workplace bonds and a sense of inclusion
  • Communities of place: Office or regional locations for example. Here safety and appreciation are important.
  • Communities of purpose: Helping people to achieve a common purpose. They could be IT support communities, where colleagues help answer questions, HR or learning communities, where groups look to grow their skills and knowledge.

Why should organisations consider communities?

Communities can help organisations support their strategic goals. The reasons organisations should consider internal communities are: 

  • Helping adapt quickly to change by:
    • Breaking down silo’s to unleash trapped knowledge.
    • Creating a more responsive, organic organisational structure.
  • Support lifelong learning.
  • Leverage knowledge across the organisation.
  • Strengthen diversity within the organisation.

Adapting to change:

The modern world of work continues to change. People need to collaborate closely on innovative solutions. To solve problems and dilemmas the organisation is facing. People are working beyond their immediate team, in loose cross-functional groups, with differing objectives. Internal online communities offer another way for people to work. Here they can find new ways of organising and working which supports these collective efforts. Traditional structures for working have resulted in silos. Communities can be an effective tool to punch holes in silos to allow people and teams to connect, communicate and collaborate. These provide new organic structures, alongside more traditional hierarchies.

Supporting lifelong learning

With the speed of change in many industries there is a constant need for employees to learn while they’re working. Here communities can also provide opportunities for peer to peer networking, support and problem solving. When a senior or experienced colleague leaves or retires, their extensive expertise and knowledge leaves with them. Risking a potential knowledge gap for the company. Providing spaces where people can openly share and curate their experiences and information can help reduce this risk.

Leveraging knowledge across the organisation

Communities of practice can also ensure that successes and activities in one area of your organisation are made transparent. Resulting in information being shared for the benefit of other areas of the organisation.

Strengthening diversity within the organisation

Organisations are starting to realise the value of diversity of thought. Diverse teams are more successful at solving problems. The modern workplace needs to support and strengthen diversity. Communities play a role here too. Communities of circumstances give informal space for minority voices to connect and share common challenges or opportunities. An LGBTQ community or Women in… group or, for international organisations, language based communities for example. This shows people that diversity is important. It also enables individuals, as part of a wider group, to voice their views and help challenge institutional issues and biases. In the short term this can be challenging for organisations. Issues will be raised and will need addressing. However, the longer term benefits of diverse input and positive employee engagement will soon be clear.

Communities of action to help support change

Communications, HR and other functions may be required to provide platforms, channels and opportunities to ‘break down silos’ or support any cultural and organisational changes that are take place. They can create spaces where people can come together with a specific goal. This is where communities of action can show their value in speeding up a transition. They allow a diverse mix of people from a variety of roles to come together informally with a common goal.

Communities help create new, more fluid structures which allow for more networked ways of working. This can happen within the traditional hierarchical structure, without any formal mandate being required. People can start to explore new areas and opportunities, quickly sharing and learning from others. The more formal transformation activities then have grassroots organic support to partner with.

During mergers, such communities can help people from different organisations to connect, communicate and collaborate without formal structure.

The need for community management

It’s clear then that internal communities can add strategic value for organisations. To do this effectively however, requires the community is effectively managed. Organisations need to learn the lessons from social media developments. When it wasn’t perhaps seen as key, it was often ad hoc or handed to an intern to manage. Community management needs to be taken seriously too and supported with the required resources.

Community management is not for everyone. Many of the technical skills required align with traditional (digital) communication roles, journalism and social media. It requires a significant amount of research and understanding of the culture within the organisation. However, community management also requires empathy. It’s a move from an ‘I’ mindset to a ‘We’ focus. The focus is on discussion and discourse, not posts and likes. Community Managers measure growth and engagement, how many questions were asked and how many got a response. They coordinate and facilitate community activity, including creating content with a clear goal in mind.

The modern community manager

Not all community managers will have the title Community Manager though. Many may not even be in a full-time role, perhaps tasked instead to focus on a specific project which has an element of community management. Therefore it is important to have a clear community goal. This can help ensure effective KPI’s are set and a plan created to achieve this goal. All shared with stakeholders. If they can align the community with strategic value, then they might start to see the support they need to take the step to full-time Community Manager.

The role of Community Manager within an organisation often finds someone sitting between communications, a change management role, human resources and IT. It’s important that the community manager focus on the community while in partnership with these other areas. A communication strategy is not the same as a community strategy, though they may share common elements. They should not be worked on in isolation. This is also true of the platform development needs IT will require input on.

Internal Community Managers will find themselves pulled in many different directions. Their main challenges being trying to balance the strategic, stakeholder management work with the day to day content and moderation elements of community management. Therefore, they should ensure that they have a good, strong support network to avoid the negative aspects of over work and stress. The great thing about community management is by building a community, an engaging support network can easily be identified and the positive principles of the value of community, working together, can be leveraged.

The need for a Head of Community

Those organisation which see the value of communities and are growing their internal community activities will need to consider appointing a Head of Community to coordinate internal and external community management across the business. They will need to ensure alignment across communities and stakeholders as well securing resources to implement their plans.

Do you agree? Can internal communities help change the way organisations work? Let us know.

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

Dan Leonard