Building and Nurturing On-Line Communities (batteries not included)

Much has been written about best practice for developing and nurturing on-line communities , such as Communities of Practice (CoP), and the accepted wisdom is that technology by itself –  no matter how good – will NOT deliver vibrant and successful communities. ‘Build it and they won’t come’ should be the mantra, as Google Wave so amply demonstrated (and I know this was not an on-line community in its purest sense before I get flamed!).

I’ve previously tried to illustrate this using  the analogy of baking a cake, where the cake’s ingredients e.g. sugar, butter, flour, eggs,  milk are the component parts of an on-line community. To bake a really good cake you need all of these ingredients – missing out any one of them can result in something which either looks or tastes nothing like a cake.

cake-ingredientsSimilarly missing out one of the ingredients in an on-line community will lead to potential failure of the community. Clearly some ingredients will be key – e.g. technology is going to be pretty important if it’s an on-line community! Members/users are important because they ARE the community. But let’s not forget the other ingredients, such as the community facilitator (also variously known as the community manager, steward or moderator) the business sponsor, the subject matter experts, the mentors, the librarians etc. Some of these roles may be combined, but  the functions they perform are distinct.   For now, I want concentrate on the role and function of the community facilitator, for I would argue that this role is the difference between the success and failure of an on-line community (and especially a CoP) – and I have the empirical evidence to prove it!

For any prior readers of this blog you will know I had (and still have) a key role in the development of the local government on-line community platform. Currently over 65,000 registered users and 1,300 CoPs.  Using various metrics available on the platform, I can clearly see the correlation between a successful community and the capability of the facilitator. If this role is so important to the health of the community, what skills and attributes are needed to be a successful facilitator? I’m still not entirely sure, though I do know it’s not a case of just providing some training – though this does help.  It’s more about personality; enthusiasm; willingness to share; being sensitive to the community environment; and energy….lots and lots of energy. Not the sort of things you can learn or teach using a pedagogical approach. I recall co-hosting a community facilitator’s story-telling session using the excellent Anecdote story-telling  guidelines. We got ten or so of the LG Improvement and Development (previously IDeA) exemplar community facilitators together to share their experience of what worked so that we could perhaps identify some key lessons that could be shared with all the other community facilitators. One recurrent theme was how hard they worked at making the community successful.  There was nothing really unique or special that they were doing, other than putting energy and enthusiasm into their role. They believed in the goals for their community and worked at helping the community achieve them.

So, coming back to my original theme – what makes a successful on-line community? The community facilitator is the answer, and though it’s clear we need some useful technology to support an on-line environment, that alone will not deliver success.  If you will excuse me for switching metaphors, an on-line community (CoP) without a good facilitator is like have having a battery-driven toy without the batteries – and hence the title of this blog. This concept is supported  by the accompanying slides, developed for a recent IBM webinar hosted and arranged by my good friend and colleague Luis Suarez (@elsua)   – and available for download from Slideshare.

To conclude – a brief story about a recent response to a proposal I received from a large government body who wanted a cost effective solution to improving knowledge sharing for their dispersed staff. There was  a limited budget, and I identified a fairly low-cost collaborative technology solution that was well within the available budget. However, I also included a dependency on having a community facilitator/manager to ensure the success of this nascent community. Unfortunately the cost of the community facilitator/manager was more than twice the cost of the technology, and consequently the solution was starting to look expensive and unlikely to be accepted and implemented by the client.  Yes, I could have just quoted the cost of the technology and then left them to get on with it, but then again, I’m not a technology vendor and I don’t believe in perpetuating the myth that technology delivers successful on-line communities. It would have been like leaving them with a battery-driven product but not telling them that the batteries were not included!

I hope the slides are useful for anyone involved in bulding and sustaining on-line communities – and if you happen to be a community facilitator, you have my utmost respect!

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