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Thoughts on the Emerging Discipline of Community Management

Dion Hinchcliffe and Dennis Howlett – both well known and respected enterprise IT voices and ZDNet bloggers – have recently highlighted community management as an important piece of corporate evolution.  Dion’s piece, Community Management: The ‘essential’ capability of successful Enterprise 2.0 efforts, brings up a number of great points:

  • The critical nature of the role itself
  • The tension between managing what a community wants and what the sponsoring business wants
  • The fact that community management is a ‘Jack of All Trades’ position
  • A recognition that if community management resources exist, they are often overwhelmed

I, for one, am glad to see the E2.0 conversation and the conversation around community management start to converge. For too long, the discussion of online community management has been mostly focused on customer communities and E2.0 has been largely focused on the tool sets.  What we’ve found is that after implementation, the tools are not the primary focus for community managers who are concerned with driving activity, connection, conversation, and conversion.  The focus shifts to attracting and engaging the members, building programming and content, measuring & reporting, evangelizing, negotiating with the community and with internal management, and a lot of other tactical details that have little to do with the technical architecture of the solution (although that does have significant impact on how and how easy it is to engage).

Dennis moves the conversation on to the people piece of the equation in “The burnout risks for E2.0 community managers” and adds some important considerations which strike me an complementary, not contradictory, to Dion’s post. He identifies the following hurdles:

  • Cultural change management
  • The importance of leadership
  • Creating community management roles that are feasible for a single individual
  • The power dynamics between internal and external influencers and associated issues
  • Managing and accounting for the altruistic nature of community participation

Dennis’ perspective is more nuanced and having spoken to him about this post, it’s clear to me that he is talking about more sophisticated community management challenges than most organizations have achieved yet but marries well with what we see evolving as companies mature their community initiatives (see my presentation on this: The Powers & Perils of Online Communities).  In large part, Dennis is right in that our large organizations are learning about how to navigate control and power dynamics at every step of the community management process. Giving up control and ceding it to un-affiliated third parties has some enormous benefits but also significant risks to the current status quo.  One of the hardest things for large organizations to do is to change.  One of the benefits of communities is that they force change so that companies can adapt – critical in today’s world but really, really hard in reality because of vested infrastructure, customers, revenue streams, and the people who manage them.

We are really just beginning to understand the maturity paths for companies that wish to use communities for business leverage. It’s both an exciting and uncertain time. That is often coupled with community management organizations that aren’t necessarily seen as strategic but who are starting to dramatically change how business is done for their companies. That mis-match is making it very stressful for the community managers themselves because they hear daily what customers/employees/partners want but don’t often have the strategic leverage to change the organization.

Those of us passionate about community management see a better way to do business, at a fundamental level, but have a long way to go in terms of exploring what that means from a tactical perspective. We must help organizations by providing roadmaps and guideposts regarding how to evolve in ways that are not completely disruptive to current operations. We’ve published the Community Maturity Model in hopes it will help organizations think about this community evolution and we hope we can be part of pushing that conversation forward.

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