Unfortunately, too many existing online communities fail to integrate in the organization facilitating them. It will come as no surprise that these networks lead a rather dormant existence. To allow a community to reach its full potential it is essential that it is thoroughly embedded in the organization. Only then will there be anything at stake for both the community participants and the employees of the organization. But what is the best way of doing this?
Before launching a community for customers or members, it is a good idea for an organization to gain a little experience with this new way of working. This is why we advise many of our clients to start a private platform for its own employees first, to experiment. This can be done using any of the many free tools available, but the organization will usually already have a social intranet in use which is perfectly suitable for this experiment. A private platform enables a practice run with a social tool, for employees to learn the ins and outs of a social platform. Even more importantly, it will show employees the effects of showing their work more openly. They will see that sharing information and knowledge will strengthen rather than weaken their position, and that transparency leads to accelerated learning and innovation. These are important lessons, which will be crucial to the organization when it starts engaging with customers at a later stage, when there won’t be anywhere to hide, and ignoring complaints or messages will reflect very badly on your organization.
No community has ever become successful without an experienced community manager. When we say experienced, we mean someone with a knack for strategizing, who is used to implementing directives both at an organizational level and ‘on the ground’. It is important to make this role an official one within the organization, and not something to be taken on by someone on top of their own job. Managing an average-sized community can easily become a full-time job. The professional association of community managers has put together a comprehensive overview of the different skills associated with this role. What this makes clear is that a good community manager is, above all, a good leader, who heads up the troops and steers the members of the community and the organization in the right direction. He (or she) is able to mobilize others by visualizing a common goal. A good community manager shares his (or her) knowledge generously. After all, he’s not the only one holding up the community. The more allies, the better.
When we say management, we mean the whole of structures, processes and policy within an organization that enables the community to function optimally. A company is already host to many structures in which the community can be incorporated. Communication tools which can be utilized to promote the community (magazines, social media, events) are available. Various guidelines and processes important for the community are in place. There are organizational objectives which the community needs to work in support of. The latter is especially important for determining when the community can be seen as a success. In addition, new structures have to be set up, and employees and managers need to be trained in the nature of online networks and how to manage them. Roles such as that of community manager must be officially assigned. Progress will have to be reported on. An important realization in all this is that a community is a singular creature. A network is not linear – a community consists of formal structures (accountability, frameworks) which are easy to influence, but also of informal structures (relationships, bottom-up movements, voluntary participation) which are harder to control for an organization. In practice, the role of an organization will mainly be to create the right conditions to allow the network to flourish.
The role of managers
The role played by managers in the adoption of a community by an organization should not be underestimated. They will have to lead by example, as they are the ones that the rest of the organization will be looking to for guidance. If they’re not using the community, why would anyone else? It is a fallacy to think that all managers will jump on board, since not all of them will be open to change straightaway. We always look for a number of managers who seem to be happily involved in the community. Our aim is to involve them in such a way that their reputation is linked to the success of the project. They need to become real sponsors of the platform, in both word and deed. One of the ways in which we achieve this is by featuring these managers prominently in the adoption campaign (on posters with quotes, in videos, with their personal stories). This is a good way to show employees that the community is a serious project. At the same time, such a campaign makes it a matter of principle for managers that the community succeed. After adoption, we train them in how to become active on the platform as well.
Where in your organization should you position the community? This of course depends on your goals. The support forums of large banks and telecoms companies are housed under the customer service department, giving webcare and support employees a big yet rewarding job. A social intranet is often assigned to a communications department or an HR department, and a platform where customers are invited to share their thoughts about new products will be part of the marketing or product development department. We always start with a core group of ambassadors. This group is made up of stakeholders of the above mentioned departments and representatives of the target group which the community is aimed at. This is our way of ensuring that the community is embedded in the organization from the very start. Employees who are part of this process will ideally be in direct contact with customers on the platform. This is only possible if they’ve had this role from the start.
Although the community often starts in a single department, we ultimately believe that a community belongs to the entire organization. A social intranet is not just a plaything for the communications department, it is a business tool which allows the organization to collaborate and share knowledge more efficiently internally. A community for customers is however also much more than just a marketing tool. It is a way of completely redefining the role assigned to customers within your business operations. A community will ultimately transform the entire organization.
Organizations need to be prepared for this transformative power of an online network. Existing positions of power will come under pressure. Employees at the lower end of the hierarchy may gain greater influence through the new informal network, and not everyone will be happy about this. Communities require durable internal change within the organization. These are lengthy and difficult processes. As far as we’re concerned, this role of change facilitator should be fulfilled by a community manager. First, the community manager will need to utilize the existing hierarchy in order to really embed the community. He will then have to lay the groundwork for a flatter organizational structure, and will have to be able to explain the type of decision best suited to being made through the informal network. He will need to be able to clarify the roles which the formal leaders from the organization should take on, and inspire the organization to work differently through the use of storytelling. He will appoint early adopters (change agents) from the organization to get the network off the ground. Because this process of trial and error is so drastic, many communities fail. People are creatures of habit and will easily revert back to old habits – the fact remains that communities take time and patience.