We have so many online tools at our disposal to theoretically connect and activate engagement with others. But what happens when we say &quot;we're building an online community&quot; but few engage? When is it worth the work and effort? What are our options? And if we build it, what are some starting points to help us work towards successful engagement? Join us ( http://leadershiplearning.org/ ) as we explore our options and practices with Nancy White of Full Circle Associates ( http://www.fullcirc.com ). Nancy has been engaging in and facilitating online groups since 1996 - with her fair share of successes and failures. October 17 th 11-12 PDT (2-3 EDT)
It seems obvious that different stakeholders have different perspectives. Yet we often fail to take these into account as we design, manage and facilitate…
When designing, managing and facilitating online communities and networks, we have to be able to work from at least three perspectives: the sponsors and their strategic goals and objectives, community leaders and facilitators with their attention to process and relationships, and finally, the members with attention to what creates enough value to make participation worth their time and attention.
By sponsors, we most often mean someone in a leadership position in an organization, a department or division or an organization itself. Sometimes sponsors are simply people who want to see something happen. Sponsors need to know they are investing in the right things and that those things are being done well. Those responsible for communities and networks should have a clear agreement with sponsors on goals, resources that can be provided, clarity on what will be measured, evaluated and how, and clarity on what the sponsor wants to be informed on in an ongoing manner. These can, and often should be, modified over time. Creating them at the start provides clarity that helps all involved. The only time the sponsor perspective is not strongly represented is when a community is formed informally or intentionally “under the radar” to protect an emergent idea that may not be ready for full organizational exposure. Of course, there are risks to this approach, but many successful communities emerged, rather than being mandated from above.
Facilitators and community leaders are both key in making things happen in a community or network. Typically the facilitators have a clearly defined role, often supported in some way by their organization. Community leaders, on the other hand, are most often volunteers. Both play vital roles in a community and often they share a similar perspective. (However, when you go to a more detailed level of analysis, I’d split these apart!) Facilitators and leaders are task focused and thus value role and task definition. What should I be doing? How? By when. Sometimes this means training and support from more experienced facilitators. It means allocating time. One thing that is often missing for them is feedback on how they are doing and what value they are adding. This is critical for sustainability.
Finally, but most importantly, we have the member perspective. There is no community without the members. No network. Today people can participate in so many communities that their level of engagement is spread thin. So the most important question we have to ask – and keep asking – is the purpose of our community valuable and relevant to members? Are the activities worth the time and attention it takes members to participate? Once we have achieved relevance for them, what kind of engagement is needed to help the community fulfill its potential?
Each of these perspectives are critical. Sometimes they may be shared and sometimes contradictory. Sponsors may want members to do something they have no interest in doing. Facilitators may feel unappreciated by both sponsors and members. By being able to step back and consider each perspective, we are more likely to bring the shared desires to the forefront and minimize the disconnects.
I find it helpful to have an organizing framework…
It helps to have a framework and a language as we design, execute and evaluate our communities. This model comes from the communities of practice literature (Wenger, et al) and gives a nice three way view. We have “What we care about,” “WHO cares about it” and “What we do together around this thing we care about together!” Said more succinctly: who, what, how. Just a practical hint: all three of these “legs” change over time. The trick is not to have all three changing at the same time. That can be very destabilizing for a community!
It is critical we have a reason for convening a community. People are too busy and have too many communities they could potentially engaged in. So we are really competing for their time and attention. One early practical tip is to find out if there is an existing community that cares about what you care about and DON’T build your own. Communities take a lot of time, work and often resources. And “yet another” community may not be your best course of action. If there is no other appropriate community, then you can think more about your own. Some things to consider when thinking about the WHAT including ensuring it meets the needs of the three perspectives we discussed earlier. It has to be broad enough to attract a critical mass of people, but specific enough to really matter in their daily life or work. There is always that problem of the “mom and apple pie” (to borrow an American expression) purpose. “End world hunger.” No one can disagree, yet it is so broad, you don’t know where to start. TOO focused and you will exclude potentially interested people.
&quot;The great and glorious masterpiece of man is to know how to live to purpose.&quot; Montaigne What we care about, or what we often call “purpose” drives how people identify themselves with the community. This can be at the individual level, at one’s professional or organizational level. The significance here is the “WE” – this is not just about one person satisfying their interest with content, but a group of people caring about the “what” together enough to learn about it, to do something about it. Does your community purpose meet that “acid test.” Because this is important, lets look at a few more “What” or “Purpose” tips.
Can you easily communicate the purpose to a potential member in a line or two of text or conversation? Do they relate to it? Is it inviting, irresistible, compelling? This is part marketing, but also the way you filter IN the people you want. And sometimes keep OUT the people who you really don’t want to attract. So HOW you express the “What” or the purpose matters. What/Purpose also involves ownership. How much do you have to control this? How much can the members own and shape it over time? This is key to sustainability.
So you have the what. This drives the “who” – the people who care about the “what we care about.” There are two parts to this “who” – finding and encouraging people to participate and valuing and supporting the relationship BETWEEN the members. Online communities offer something more than content – we can find that in abundance across the internet. They offer us access to each other. So when we think about the who, it’s not just about “getting them in the door” but helping them get to know and relate to each other. This can be done through tools such as profiles and directories, but it also happens when we introduce ourselves in discussions and web meetings. When facilitators introduce people to each other … “hey, you are both working on XYZ…” The other really interesting part of this is as people join a community, it becomes a little part of their expression of their own identity. Shawn Callahan of Anecdote.au talks about the test of “I am a….” When people say “I’m a chocoholic.” “I’m a member of the Chocolate Lovers Community” it means they value their membership. It says something about what they are interested in and what is important to them. This ties very closely to the “what” we just talked about. See, the legs are tied together pretty strongly! When we get this intersection of who and what, people are much more likely to spend the time to engage. To relate. Like a great party, you want the right people “in the room,” and engaging with each other.
Finally, there is the action – what we do together around the thing we care about with each other. A nice shorthand is to think of this as the set of activities that support our purpose. This can be a broad range of things like web meetings, web based discussions, blogging together, writing something together on a wiki, teaching each other things, sharing case studies and stories, mentoring each other, inviting in new members, taking on specific roles, sharing great content. It is the stuff we do together. When designing, managing and facilitating, these activities are the building blocks of our work. We can see them across time as a calendar of activities. New communities really need to focus on specific, structured activities to get people engaged and invested. Informal or well established communities may generate much of this on their own. In fact, that is a great sign of success when the community becomes a hive of self-organized activity. There is an old saying, “if you build it they will come.” Well, they may drop by for a visit, but if there is nothing happening, they won’t stay and you will have an empty shell. There is a second layer of “what we do together” that is also important – how people apply what they learn out in the world, out in their work. In the end, WB communities are not there just to be there. They exist to support change in the world. So activities that help members share and reflect on how they apply what they learn can be crucial. Let’s look at a few examples.
In Wenger, White and Smith’s research of CoPs they noticed 9 general patterns of activities in a variety of communities. Most had a mix, but some were more prominent in every case. By looking at our communities from the perspective of its activities, we have a new way to observe, plan and evaluate. It also helps us realize there are more options available than most communities have time and attention to engage in. This helps us prioritize. Trying to do everything is rarely a strategic decision, especially in the early part of a community’s. life. If you dilute attention, people can fall away more easily. Image: Wenger, White and Smith, 2009 Meetings – in person or online gatherings with an agenda (i.e. monthly topic calls) Projects – interrelated tasks with specific outcomes or products (i.e. Identifying a new practice and refining it.) Access to expertise – learning from experienced practitioners (i.e. access to subject matter experts) Relationship – getting to know each other (i.e. the annual potluck dinner!) Context – private, internally-focused or serving an organization, or the wider world (i.e. what is kept within the community, what is shared with the wider world) Community cultivation – Recruiting, orienting and supporting members, growing the community (i.e. who made sure you’re the new person was invited in and met others?) Individual participation – enabling members to craft their own experience of the community (i.e. access material when and how you want it.) Content – a focus on capturing and publishing what the community learns and knows (i.e. a newsletter, publishing an article, etc.) Open ended conversation – conversations that continue to rise and fall over time without a specific goal (i.e. listserv or web forum, Twitter, etc.)
Here is an example drawn from the book “Red-Tails in Love: Pale Male’s Story -- A True Wildlife Drama in Central Park” by Marie Winn. Vintage Books, 2005 The book tells of a community of bird watchers in Central Park and exquisitely describes their practices. This is a predominantly face to face group that might use some social media, but not as their central way of interacting. They are a large, diverse group, but tightly geographically bound to Central Park in New York City. They might fill this spidergram differently than shown here, but this is just an example! But even an example can reveal hinking about activity orientations and how they can be a useful way to assess current state, plan and evaluate. You can find blank spidergrams here http://bit.ly/g7pIsm and http://bit.ly/ek5W50 Image: Wenger, White and Smith, 2007
When we look at the trajectories of some existing communities, we see a couple of useful patterns around STRATEGY.
Here are a few examples for comparison. There are MANY more! (In fact it would be fun to do some pattern work around this!) There is a major event or initiative and a community is set up around that event. There is a strong beginning, middle and end, clear target audience and a defined set of activities. These time-delimited communities can be very successful because people are more easily willing to commit for set action items within defined time ranges. They have a sense of their ability to say yes. These can be seeds for longer term communities if there is sufficient attention to relationship and evolving with and to member needs over time, or they may simply be ended and archived. Both are realistic strategies. Some communities started with a broad topic and a wide invitation to participants. This strategy often builds on the aggregation of content that might be useful in this topic area and people come, browse content and some interact. It is a way to build general interest and begin to affiliate with others interested in the topic. This strategy can be thought of as building or tapping into a network of people interested in something. Once established, there is a critical strategic choice to be made: continue to use resources to keep the information hub going (as a service) or begin to cultivate and weave relationships to move people from information browsing to some other kind of interaction. This might be identification of sub-communities of interest, attracting experts who might be willing to share their knowledge etc. The key thing about this approach is within about a year, there needs to be an assessment and decision about the next phase or you end up simply providing content. A third less common but very useful pattern is launching with small experiments and smaller numbers of members. This strategy is good for complex or emerging situations where you are not entirely sure of any of the three legs of the stool, but sense an opportunity for engaging people. You facilitate people designing and doing small community experiments with each other – generally time delimited with a clear beginning, middle and end. A useful practice is to do a mid point review and support changes and interations. At the end of the experiment, evaluate and then amplify what works and stop what isn’t working. This is a useful form for places of both uncertainty and where you want to foster both innovation and member ownership. Sponsor goals are looser and more flexible.
We can also think about strategy along a timeline. In the last slide we thought about three different design patterns. By looking at a community across time, we can see how we can utilize different design strategies depending on a community’s life cycle.
There are a variety of ways to look at design and structure. The bottom line is, when we have a way to look at and talk about our communities, we can do our work with more intentionality. So regardless of the framework , you adopt, it is useful to HAVE a framework. It helps us remember to think about strategy, implementation and reflection/evaluation. (This presentation does not go deeply into the latter – and probably should!)
We talked about the myth of “build it and they will come.” What the study of online community management has shown, what experienced practioners tell us time and time again is that facilitation is essential. Today, with the range of social media available, facilitation is a much more diverse practice. It used to be about facilitating discussion boards. It is no longer that simple. In financially tight times, it is tempting to think we don’t need people taking care of our communities. We need them. We can, however, prioritize what we do to make the most of that time. Reflecting back to some of the design options we just talked about, we can ask what types of facilitation they need – it can be diverse – and use that to help inform our decisions. Let’s look at a few aspects of community facilitation.
Facilitation means “to make easy.” Today as we interact THROUGH technology, with volumes of content, we are no longer talking just about the social aspects of human interaction. The role is really “roles!” For example, we can consider community leaders, network weavers and technology stewards. Community leaders are a more familiar role, helping defined groups achieve specific goals over a period of time. “Helping” may mean creating conditions, supporting the emergence of relationships or individual and/or group identity, managing, etc. Network weavers are a new role (See the work of June Holley et al at http://www.networkweaving.com/blog/) – “people who facilitate new connections and increase the quality of those connections.” In between community leaders and network weavers are technology stewards – they show up both in groups/communities AND networks. They help people participate using the technology, helping pick, configure and tweak that technology. In world with immense diversity and strong polarity, we need to engage independent and critical thinkers. With volume, we need people to curate content. And finally, we need simply “keeping things tidy enough to be coherent” – the moderators
Classical group facilitation has a clear role in facilitating online communities. We can and should use our offline knowledge of group facilitation in many contexts online. Working, learning and interacting online all reflect a continuum of processes, tools and experiences. In order to make it a bit easier to talk about, Michelle Moussou and I developed a model to talk about four main frameworks and 9 processes. Somewhat of an artificial construct – but it gives you something to “hang on to” to initiate discussions of how to facilitate online interaction. The inside is reflective of the content we are offering – how to facilitate online. But the frameworks on the outer ring may have broader applicability to learning environments and the inner processes can reflect the online learning experience. This is particularly true if you adopt a more facilitative vs. “teaching” approach. For example, if you want to use group projects as a learning tool, the issues of sociability, relationship and trust are worth exploring as groundwork to enable group work. Make sense? Here is a key idea to keep in mind: There is always a tension between control and emergence. Between what we intend as facilitators/teachers and what the participant brings to the table. Between individual and group. Between what works for one and what works OK for the larger group (learning styles, etc.). Between what we know and what we don’t know. Between the comfort of what we know, and the opportunity of what we don’t!
Classical facilitation also has a key assumption: there is a defined group of people. But with online opportunities, we are often working with much less defined and affiliated groups of people, asking us to consider facilitation from a network perspective. In open networks, people are less apt to build shared agreements, and conform to them. Power is distributed so people can skip around anything they don’t like, making it difficult to create a fully shared experience. If this is the reality, then we need to use the strengths of the open context, rather than let it be a barrier. ODI and many other organizations have been looking at how to effectively use networks. Value of networks: Enrique Mendazibal ODI working paper http://www.odi.org.uk/Rapid/Projects/PPA0103/Functions.html
So where does this lead us? How do we hold in our heads, let alone practice this thing we call “online community.” Let’s recap.
This is a complex, emergent environment. No single formula will serve a community ad infinitum, nor will every community conform to a single path. Plan, do, reflect, improve and go forward. And keep doing it.
Communities, Networks and Engagement: Finding a Place for Action
Poll 1: (for those viewing
on SlideShare after the event, we did some polls within the meeting tool. <ul><li>I facilitate online groups regularly </li></ul><ul><li>I facilitate online groups occasionally </li></ul><ul><li>I never facilitate online groups, but plan to soon </li></ul><ul><li>I have nothing to do with online facilitation! </li></ul>
Poll 2: <ul><li>I regularly participate
in online groups or communities </li></ul><ul><li>I occasionally participate in online groups or communities </li></ul><ul><li>I rarely participate in online groups or communities. </li></ul>
<ul><li>Meets needs of sponsors, leaders
and members </li></ul><ul><li>Broad enough to attract people </li></ul><ul><li>Focused enough to matter in their work </li></ul><ul><li>Often shifts over time </li></ul><ul><li>Drives the “who” and the “what we do” </li></ul>
What We Care About: <ul><li>What
are we about? </li></ul><ul><li>What is our identity? </li></ul><ul><li>What is the significance? </li></ul><ul><ul><li>To our Organization </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>To us as individuals </li></ul></ul>
Practical Purpose Points <ul><li>Is it
clear? </li></ul><ul><li>Is it sharable? </li></ul><ul><li>Is it inviting? </li></ul><ul><ul><li>to organizations </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>individuals </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Is it reasonable? </li></ul><ul><li>Is it negotiable? </li></ul>
<ul><li>It relates to my identity
</li></ul><ul><li>Connects me to other people “like me” (yet with diversity) </li></ul><ul><li>People who have time and attention to engage </li></ul><ul><li>Involves relationships </li></ul>
What do we do together?
<ul><li>Our roles </li></ul><ul><li>How we interact to solve problems & answer questions </li></ul><ul><li>How we foster trust & engagement </li></ul><ul><li>How we capture and share what we learn & do </li></ul>http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/4149444067/sizes/l/in/photostream/
Some Comparisons As long as
interest remains Informal network Friends and acquaintances Collect & pass on information Mutual needs, friends hip As long as reason to connect exists Etienne Wenger 2003 Who belongs Purpose Cohesiveness Duration Formal Org. Hierarchical reporting To deliver a product or service Organizational goals Until next reorganization Project Team Management assigned To accomplish a specific task Project goals Until project is complete Community of Practice Voluntary, invited or self - selected Build & exchange knowledge Passion, identity, commitment
enable people to… <ul><li>discover &
appropriate useful technology </li></ul><ul><li>be in and use communities & networks (people) </li></ul><ul><li>express their identity </li></ul><ul><li>find and create content </li></ul><ul><li>usefully participate </li></ul>
<ul><li>Stay alert to the three
perspectives (sponsor, facilitator, member) </li></ul><ul><li>Balance the three legs of the CoP stool – what we care about, who cares and how. </li></ul><ul><li>Be strategic. Consider options over time. </li></ul><ul><li>Facilitate, facilitate, facilitate. </li></ul>Leading into the Future