Comments on Communities
The following are some responses I have made to questions about online communities or communities of practice in 2005-2006. They don’t pretend to be complete answers to the questions…other members of the discussion groups typically added their own insights. If you’d like more information about the sources for these comments, just drop me a note! New material will be added at the top. :-)
Question concerning (May 8, 2006):
“The other day while we were running our CoP workshop a participant said the best CoPs were where there were people with a diverse set of backgrounds: marketing, manufacturing, management etc all in the same CoP. I could see his point from the perspective of creating a possibility for new ideas to emerge but it seemed to fail the simple â€˜I am a â€¦â€™ test. Can you think of any example where you get the diverity AND pass the test?
Ones I can think of sit outside the organisation like: I am a wine lover; I am a smoker; I am a football fanatic etc. I guess it shows how informal communities can play an important role in connecting people in new ways. Robert Putnum made a similar observation in his study of Italy.”
Interesting question, isn’t it? His observation may be based in a more general way of stereotyping people as “specialists” and “generalists”. My experience is that specialists, who drill down deeply into a clearly defined (e.g., narrow) area, want to engage with other specialists and keep the conversation focused. Generalists, however, who see connections and parallels among all sorts of different areas, are necessarily more shallow and broad in their interests. It seems to me the gentleman who made the comment is coming from a “generalist” point of view.
Now for examples of a diverse community that meets your “I am a …” test within an organization. Hmmm… It seems that vertical communities fit that bill. For example, members of the IT department (regardless of specialty), or members of a specific government agency (as opposed to members of another agency). What they share is organizational issues and concerns, regardless of their specialized skill or role. One might say, “I am an IT programmer,” which is more diverse than saying “I am a Cobol mainframe program maintenance engineer.” Or “I am a member of the Public Education agency,” as opposed to “I am a curriculum development specialist.”
In a vertical/diverse community, the main discussions would likely be common organizational issues or interests, I’d assume, while the other type of CoP is probably smaller, and the topics would probably cover only the specialist subject matter and cuts across different organizational barriers. The reality is that members of any organizational community automatically participate in both types, don’t they?
One of the most powerful graphics I have used in past presentations to explain communities shows a person sitting in both types of communities simultaneously. It suddenly makes the concept of a “specialist” or horizontal community understandable to managers who have typically only thought in terms of their own business vertical. It also leads to some very interesting ideas about the roles of vertical and “horizontal” communities, I think. Vertical communities reinforce siloed knowledge, where horizontal specialist communities transcend silos. Verticals support up and down communications. Horizontals promote peer-to-peer communications. Verticals provide a context, horizontals provide specifics.
I think the informal communities you described do play an important role in connecting people in new ways. For sure as soon as a person identifies him/herself as a “something”, they can find a community of similarly self-described people from all walks of life. I’m thinking in particular of my daughter, who several years ago became a big NASCAR race fan (“I am a NASCAR fan.”). She immediately looked on the web to find other NASCAR fans, and then even further “specialized” herself as a fan of the driver of car #19 (“I am a fan of #19.”). The members of the virtual #19 fan community has gotten together at races in various states and socialized, creating new real life friendships. We couldn’t have even dreamed of something like that 30 years ago. Isn’t it wonderful to be living today? :)
Thread concerning getting senior executives to participate in a community (April 14, 2006):
I am moderating a new forum for senior executives in the wireless industry. Besides wireless/telecom, we have members from the media and entertainment world who want to sell content on mobile phones, and also geeky types from technology companies. My challenge is to get these executives (who have no time) to actively participate in the online discussions. Personally, I have experience in the wireless industry. I know the hot topics to get the conversation started. But I am beginner when it comes to online moderation.
You said: “My challenge is to get these executives (who have no time) to actively participate in the online discussions.”
Realistically, the likelihood that they will do it is slim to none, and I hope your career doesn’t hang on your success at getting them to participate. First of all, if they are (as you said) “senior executives”, so the only ones with any realistic chance of participating are those who actually do their own email regularly (many have a secretary). That means, the ones who are comfortable having a conversation by typing, and to many older people that’s a difficult concept. Other barriers include (as you said) time, and ability to type comfortably. I’m going to stick my neck out here and guess that if they are in telecommunications, they are more comfortable with voice conversations than typing, especially if typing means a Blackberry or Blueberry keyboard. A traditional typing forum may be problematic. And finally, in the negative column, I’d add that “online communities” have a distinctly plebian image/reputation…it’s something executives often consider to be the realm of sales staff, or junior analysts, or “techies” or their teenage children. (No disparagement intended for any of those groups!) Executives will not readily see the magic and value of communities for themselves, because they will consider it as something outside their realm of concern/interest.
So, you have a bunch of busy, unmotivated, distracted, slow typing executives who don’t see the value yet. What CAN you do? Well, this is where your ingenuity and creativity can come into play. Let’s back up and think for a minute…. What is your objective in having them participate and what do you actually want from them?
1. Is it a private senior executive community, where only peers will talk and see the postings?
2. Are they participating as champions of a vertical community within a specific business line (i.e., as the leader of the pack who is waving the flag)?
3. Are they being treated on a par with all the other members of the community (i.e., as simple members) when everyone else knows they are senior executives?
4. Does your organization have a culture of candor and open communication?
If it’s (1), then you have a shot at success. Give them a safe environment where they will not look foolish, inept or unknowledgeable to their subordinates. Get a couple of respected execs who are interested to participate, and spend a lot of time coaching them and getting them to help draw in their peers. As in fundraising, peers respond to peers better than to outsiders and underlings. If your community system is designed properly, it will be simple to use, and easy for one exec to sell to another.
If it’s (2), the best you can probably hope for is that you will be able to draft a suggested posting once a week or every few weeks, and have the exec’s secretary polish it and either help the exec to post it, or post it on their behalf. The execs will probably like being a champion if they like the community concept, but they will still be too busy to come up with ideas for postings, or respond to most of the postings. They may not have time to read, and will need assistance in some form to keep them involved. (And there is a lot of value in a vertical community to having the boss appear visible periodically and act like they are reading the postings)
If it’s (3), this is a kiss of death. First, execs expect to receive some sort of deferential treatment for their managerial role, and members of the community will not be able to get past the fact that the exec has direct or indirect authority over them. No one likes to look foolish or take risks in front of someone who might be in a position to affect their future in the organization. Participants will typically hold back on answering (fear of looking bad) and asking questions (fear of looking stupid), and the exec may not see the level of meaningful exchange and new ideas emerging that they were expecting…causing them to lose interest in participating. Be sure the exec’s role is clear to the exec, and that they are introduced openly in the community with an explanation of what their role/participation will be (ideally, that should come from the exec, but it could come from you as moderator).
Just be careful that if the exec asks for candor and concerns, he/she doesn’t then override, criticize, dismiss or waffle on answers when sticky subjects rise up. I’d make that a ground rule.
Number (4) is the one I should have asked first, but didn’t think of till after. In organizations that are becoming flatter at the top–meaning fewer management layers—and in so-called “transparent” organizations, there may be an expectation that executives are just ordinary people with a specific management role to fill. There may be an expectation of candid answers, free and open questioning, and prompt responses. Maybe. But for the big majority of organizations, executives are not used to being candid or answering off the cuff (and perhaps being wrong), and both they and their subordinates will need to develop trust over time before meaningful exchanges will occur.
So it all comes down to: What do you want to achieve with the community(ies)? Once you can articulate it clearly (and it may be different for each community), then see if the executives agree with your objective. And then see if the community itself agrees. If you can get agreement about the community’s objectives, then you can get agreement on a set of guidelines for participation. If you get that, then you have moved your chances of success forward considerably! :)
Finally, your only hope of getting sustained executive participation is to integrate the community tool into the tools that the executives already use on a regular basis. If you have an organizational desktop or executive dashboards, be sure you have a one-click link very visible on them. Utilize single sign on…once the exec is in the system, don’t make them have to log in to the community. Make the system recognize them and streamline the process of participation–not more than one click. If the execs only use email, then be sure the community tool offers digests (daily and weekly), the ability to choose to have some or all messages posted to the community to be forwarded directly into the executives email box, and MOST importantly…the ability for the exec to just “reply” (or click on a reply button that opens a CGI form) directly from email/Blackberry and have the system post that email response to the correct thread in the forum automatically. Don’t make them go log in to some community site and have to remember a password. It simply won’t happen. Do some research into the most common technologies routinely used by your key executives, and then work with your IT group to get the community site integrated with those for ease of use.
Hey, you are in the telecommunications business! Maybe you should look into having periodic “community” phone calls with or without the executives, or webinars, or cell phone dial-in updates or voice readers that will read the postings to an executive on their cell phones, and allow them to respond to the system using voice! Be creative with making the “communities” conform to the existing preferred way of communicating, rather than the other way around.
My apologies to everyone for this long message. I hope it helps you.
Thread concerning community charters and community control (April 16, 2006):
So it appears we have a semantic problem. I…get quite sqeamish at chartering CoPs’ and going down the control route. What you refer to is more commonly called a task force, matrix, or project team. There the use of (sometimes hierarchical) structures is quite appropriate – project charters, mission/vision/outcome statements, etc…. Nor do I have a ‘problem’ with (hierarchical) structuration. It is clearly useful…I just don’t think it is functional to confuse CoPs with other forms of organizing institutions, of which there are many.
My suggestion would be to call whatever it is you want to create by the accepted term and apply appropriate structures and processes to them. For instance, it sounds like what was you described was a collection of individuals brought together to solve a business problem. I don’t know what rubric you are using for the change effort, but you might want to stick to terms that align to that rubric. Or create terms for these teams that speak directly to the issue – say Best Practice Teams – or something.
There are assumptions being made in this discussion about what a “community” is, colored by the personal experiences of each of us. For people whose experience with online communities covers only
voluntary or social associations with kindred spirits, such as com-prac or CP2 or ActKM, I submit that they need to broaden their understanding of what a community is. Business communities are true communities, by any widely accepted working definition. Their dynamics are the same as those in, for example, this community:
** people join voluntarily and leave voluntarily
** members post comments or not, as they choose
** members access it regularly or irregularly, as they choose
** the community is ongoing, i.e. there is no assumed ending
** the community transcends the membership of any
** there are no officers or elections
** members may or may not work in the same building, the same
business division, the same city or same country
** the members share common interests that they want to
** moderators/facilitators regulate the daily interactions
** a record of the dialogues is maintained and accessible by
anyone with access to the community
Business communities are not “work teams” or “task forces”, even though they may have more clearly defined structure or roles than other types of voluntary communities. Work teams (collaborations, best practice teams, work groups, etc.) have a narrowly defined purpose/goal and a fixed time in which to accomplish their purpose. This differentiates work teams from a community. The work team comes together for a narrowly defined purpose, and then it dissolves when the goal is accomplished or the time is ended. “Community” implies ongoing interests that transcend a single goal or specific timeframe. Businesses indeed have task forces and work teams, but they also have true communities, whose only difference from com-prac or ActKM is that their ongoing common interest happens to be a work process or a business goal.
Communities can be viewed from the top down or the bottom up to different effect, and I think that is part of what is causing confusion in this thread. People who try to generalize communities only from personal experience as a community participant or as a community developer/creator may not fully understand the broader context into which a community fits. They may not see the implicit or tacitly understood framework that structures their conversations and the approaches they use. Every community is a thread in the fabric of a wider conversation. Unlike casual or social communities, for
businesses/corporations or governments the wider agenda is clearly articulated and moves the institution forward. Communities residing within those environments are reminded (by a charter or by rules or by management expectations) that they have a relationship to the broader entity and its goals. Charters are not necessarily to “control”…but simply to articulate the common vision. I’m not sure why this is considered a bad thing.
Thread concerning minimum number for a successful community (April 7, 2006):
I need your advice. I’m thinking about doing an experiment of building several COPs from scratch (a top down approach in an organization) in order to test several variables and look their significance in the building stage of a COP. Those COPs should serve as Helping Communities (APQC 2000). However, I couldn’t find any reference regarding the minimal number of members/people needed for starting a COP. Therefore, two information I need from our experts here:
1. do you know any reference (literature) that explicitly mentions a magic number of people needed for starting a COP?
2. Based on your experience in COP, what would be the magic number of
starting a COP?
Two years ago, I led a pilot of communities of practice in a large U.S. insurance carrier, and we tested exactly this question. We, too, started from scratch. Before our pilot, my prior experience with online communities made me believe two things:
(1) a critical mass (minimal number of participants) is required for a successful business-type community (we tested what that number is), and
(2) a group over a certain size is unwieldy and will result in either the formation of more specific sub-groups or the collapse of the community
I found that the motivation of the participants and the significance of the subject matter to the participants are the factors that determine how small a group you can successfully sustain. Certainly, casual/social communities I have participated in over years have required many more people (usually in the 100-200 member area) to sustain them than focused, motivated work groups in a business setting.
We were able to test the lower end in our pilot project…we had four different business groups, including two that had about 16-20 members, one that had 50 members and one that had 190 members. One of the smaller communities was highly successful–the members knew one another, they did similar work, and although they were geographically dispersed, they came together face to face once a year so knew each other personally. They were a genuine peer group. They had similar job titles and goals for their geographic regions, and all had a common manager/leader who instructed them to participate in the pilot. This leader had some of his own management team participate as well, to gain first hand experience with the new way of working.
There were a lot of reasons for success, but for this particular small community, the most important reasons were (in their own words): personal relationships with the other participants (they knew the other people who were posting), direct management participation in the community (participants were being observed by people who had implicit control over their real world success), and advance preparation/coaching of the participants and moderators. The advance preparation was valuable in previewing what to expect (most of them had no prior online community experience at all…even at home) and how to use the technology. One final and very important reason for their success was the technology design–I knew that busy professionals want to work within their normal toolset, and not have to log out of one application, go to some other place, and log in in order to participate. I integrated the community tool with their email. They could subscribe and read all postings in their normal email inbox, and reply directly from email into the system. They never had to log in to the system if they didn’t want to. This one feature was cited as the most valuable of all.
The other successful community in our pilot was the largest one. It was an entire business line…a vertical community. That business group had previously had a Lotus Notes database that they used interactively as a community to share competitive and work related information, but the database was removed when Notes was phased out of the company a year previously. They felt a gap, and welcomed a new technology solution that let them share information in a way similar to how they had worked together previously. Yet in this community of 190 members, the reality was only about 30 of the people were active over the 4 month pilot, with about 5-7 active in any given week or subject…the rest were lurkers or really disinterested. The 30 who were active were, for the most part, underwriters…a subgroup with similar work/information needs, which reinforces the idea that a large group will automatically subdivide into a comfortable size group with similar issues/goals/needs.
Some of the learnings we had were these:
** A small group of under 20 people can have a viable community, but
they must be highly motivated to participate.
** A small group has higher requirements for knowing the other
participants in real life (i.e., meeting face to face)
** Active management support and participation is a key success
** The larger the group, the more likely the core group of
contributors will fluctuate over time, as various active members
get sidetracked on other projects and don’t have time to
participate, and others step in.
** Skilled group moderation is important. Business groups generally
do not have enough experience in community dynamics to sustain
the interactions. After a flurry of activity at the beginning, the
conversation wanes, and moderators need to draw people in and
keep new subjects flowing. (We spent a lot of time training our
community moderators in how to manage community dynamics)
** There will rarely be more than 6-8 active contributors to any
specific topic/discussion thread.
** New leaders and experts emerge from even a small community. The
tool enables participants to present what they know on a wide
variety of topics, and certain voices inevitably emerge as the
“experts” on various subjects. The reality of who actually
emerges as the star can be surprising at times. It’s not always
the one everyone assumed to be the expert.
** Rewards and recognition are important to overall success (but it
doesn’t need to be valuable items…it can just be stars like
Amazon.com has or approval ratings like eBay uses. Professionals
value peer recognition.)
The results of this research are proprietary, unfortunately, but I hope this little bit helps you make your case!
Question concerning stimulating interest in a community (January 20, 2006):
I am currently involved in monitoring a CoP that has recently been set up for different health professionals (specifically policy makers, researchers, and nurses)in both academic and public capacities. Currently, we’re noticing that the CoP has been slow on the activity front. I’m looking for any kind of advice on how to increase participation or how to stimulate interest among those involved.
Welcome to the group! Do you mean “facilitating” or “moderating” when you say you are monitoring a CoP? Monitoring to me means passively observing what occurs. If you are taking a more active role, then here are a couple of thoughts.
First, you have described a busy professional group who are likely not to have a lot of time for “socializing”, which many people still consider online communities to be. They probably need to see relevant and timely discussions occurring, and be aware of them in a timely way. For example, many people don’t understand and take advantage of the “digest” function of message forum software. A digest will send the postings right to their e-mail, so they don’t have to remember or find time to go log in somewhere. You might want to encourage members to set up digests to be sure they see all the discussions. If your software permits replying to the forum discussions directly from their e-mail, so much the better! I designed a “reply” button into an application we were building about two years ago, and it greatly increased participation. The reply was entered right into the system and was catalogued appropriately into the threaded discussion without the user having to sign in to do it.
Secondly, moderators of successful communities typically take an active role in the community. Not necessarily in answering questions (as John is very good at doing over at CPSquare), but in initiating discussions, and drawing people into the discussion. It’s an art, but it is acquired with practice. Some suggestions on how to moderate effectively are probably in the archives you were referred to, but here are a couple of my own favorites:
** Identify 3-4 people in the group who are comfortable in using a posted message format and have good knowledge in the groups topics of interest. Send them an occasional private message, asking them to help you by responding to a question that was posted or initiating a discussion topic (you can even suggest one or two). That spreads the burden around and keeps it from looking like you are the only one participating in the forum.
** Don’t answer a question completely, even if you can! As moderator, it’s good to post a reply to a question to let the asker know their question/comment didn’t fall into the black hole of cyberspace, but craft your reply in such as way as to give a little information, but leave some obvious points unanswered. Other members will read, and will want to respond to fill in the gaps.
** When you do reply to a question, end your reply with another question…a more specific related question, or a clarification question, or a question opening up the topic to all members again. For example, ending with “Does anyone else know where to get more information on regs in North Carolina?” or even naming a few likely responders by name, like “Bob/Sharon, don’t you have some experience with this?”
Question concerning technology for discussion lists (July 8, 2005):
I’m looking for some perspectives from all of you thought leaders about collaboration technology functionality around forums versus discussion lists? Is one better than the other, or is there another technology and/or next practice we should be considering? Today at (company) we offer a variety of different technologies to support collaboration for our employees and customers, but I am interested in perspectives?
Warning, long message! I was a little confused by your question… â€œ…forums versus discussion lists?â€ Personally, I consider those to be the same thing, so could you define what you see to be the difference?
I want to comment on the collaboration tools part of your message. It’s something I have been giving a lot of thought to and have now experienced first-hand in several different forms. It is, of course, highly subjective to say what works better since we don’t really have any formal requirements defined, but I’ve formed some opinions that I will share with anyone interested to read further. I’m going to focus mostly on KM/community related functionality, and ignore the full scope of “collaboration potential” in the tools.
In a nutshell, the most intuitive, easy-to-use and elegant tool is Groove. (Recently purchased by Microsoft) I’ve used it now for several KM related activities for three years, and found it to be just the best there is. It has flaws for sure…a lame search tool at best, inability to search across multiple shared workspaces, and inability to drag and drop items to a new location in the document heirarchy…but in terms of functionality and sheer simplicity of use, it’s the best. It does everything I have ever wanted it to do, including live typed chats, VoIP, presence indication, and instant messaging. People are constantly inventing new great add-on tools to enhance its capabilities, like shared calendaring, real time file editing, member polls. Its security is now being touted as one of the best available. Depending upon the type of license the user has (corporate, personal paid, personal non-paid), additional workspaces (number determined by the license) can be created instantly, and members added instantly. The free personal use version available for download even enables a user to create up to 3 different work groups/communities of their own choice…other versions provide more or unlimited. One negative about Groove is that, unless your organization has a Groove server behind your firewall, exchanges among members are relayed over the Internet up to Groove’s servers, then out to members. IT security and legal departments are usually not happy about that, since confidential information will be leaving your control and could (theoretically) be viewed by unauthorized people.
Microsoft’s Sharepoint is my second favorite. As with Quickplace below, a major drawback is the need to have someone with decent HTML experience create the “home page” for each workspace. I have seen way too many where someone set up a workspace as a place to house work team documents (basically ignoring the interactive, communication components) and asked someone who has “always wanted to learn HTML” to learn by setting up the space. (Think blue type on black backgrounds, whirling graphics, and flashing headlines) Really abyssmal design/usability results, and severely limits even highly motivated workers from finding what they need. Sharepoint workspaces are simply not intuitive. Setting up the spaces is pretty easy, but making them work and function in a way that will facilitate interaction is another story. Unfortunately, the discussion board/forums are so buried in the Sharepoint sites I have seen that they are never used! Several times I have actively tried to find the forums areas, only to find them, with difficulty, cavernously empty! And the workspaces lack many of the basic features we have become accustomed to with group tools like Yahoo groups…individual profiles, instant messaging, etc. Once a person is given administrative rights to create a shared space, they have complete freedom over how to structure it. Am administrator must set up a shared space “owner” and grant access to the tool, but then the space owner/community manager(s) can establish types of access and permission levels for the content, and grant varying levels of access as required. One can only assume that Microsoft intends to somehow integrate Sharepoint and Groove, and if they succeed, they may, indeed have the killer collaboration application. (http://www.microsoft.com/sharepoint/default.mspx)
IBM/Lotus’s Sametime/Quickplace (now renamed to IBM Lotus Team Workplace). Lotus was ahead of its time with Sametime/Quickplace, but unfortunately, they chose to continue down their traditional “proprietary formats” road, and ignore web standards that were emerging in the late 1990s. Early versions of S/Q were so arcane that even the icons used for functions were greyed out when active and bright when not available! It was extremely challenging to use, even for experienced users. S/Q continues to require an administrator, as most Lotus products do, who adds and removes access to the system (often because of the expense involved with the licenses). Licenses are issued to a named individual, and if that individual leaves the system, the administrator must cancel the license manually before it can be reissued to a new user. No one else can access that license until it is “released”. That can create a backlog and delay access to the content while the administrator processes any changes. The good thing about the administrator concept is that it adds a layer of control and security that most companies and managers find appealing (cost control, permissions, etc.); however, it prevents communities from forming and growing readily. Only the administrator can set up new shared spaces, and membership lists must be provided in advance. Administrators are usually not members of the community. Adding new members is typically done with a formal written request (and may require other layers of permission before access is granted). While S/Q is richly featured, they have a long way to go with usability. I have found S/Q to be less user friendly and more burdensome to use than any other collaboration tool, despite the fact that it has become more web-standardized in feel and is still the leading collaboration product in the business world.
Basically, however, if I want to have an online typed/phone meeting (with or without video pictures), I will almost always fire up NetMeeting. You do have to be aware that information from your meeting is going to the Microsoft servers, unless you have a server behind your own firewall and are only talking with members of your organization’s secure network. If I want to do threaded discussions, post documents, use instant messaging with a work group, do group editing online, I will use Groove.
I know I haven’t covered a lot of the features and functionalities of each application in a comparable way…these are just user highlights from having seen several different setups of all of these programs.
Other tools, such as Intuit’s QuickBase, various learning management systems, and even Microsoft’s NetMeeting, also provide a lot of community/collaboration features. And my user experience has been limited by choices that were made by whomever set up the rules around use of the tools I named. Others who have used these tools in different environments may have different points of view. :)
Lauren, if you were talking about where these types of tools are headed in the future, I will depart from many who are very excited about wiki functionality. Wikis are great for collaborators who share a common goal around a piece of content (e.g., getting a contract finalized). They are essentially web based editing tools and document repositories. But they are only partial KM solutions, so they will have limited use in organizations that take them on. Most people are not accustomed to working the “wiki way”, and it’s a huge cultural change most companies will never get over.
Whatever the future of collaboration tools, the tools MUST be fully integrated with the user base’s most commonly used applications, for example, e-mail. In one tool I used last year for a communities pilot, the vendor modified its code at my insistance so that users could opt for various types of message digests that were e-mailed to them…and a button within each e-mail message enabled the reader to respond directly from their e-mail to the knowledge system without having to log in somewhere else to do it. The system took the e-mail replies and sorted and stored them appropriately to retain message threading and file the document attachments. If it takes only one click for a person to add a comment, thought, new idea, or document they want to share, they will do it. Very few will take the trouble to go log into another system with another password just to “collaborate” or provide “knowledge”. To me, solving how to keep users in their own applications of choice but still sharing knowledge is the next major software breakthrough to be achieved in the collaboration/community space.
I’m very interested to hear what others think or have used.
Question concerning Community Coffee Challenges for small networking groups (May 24, 2005):
Anyone else ever had experience of Community Coffee Challenge?…I find the invitation process is the tough work; get 6 to 10 people to turn up same day, same place, same challenge agenda and not only do they co-create breakthrough ideas but the networking seeds that branch out can be wild and wonderful…What we want to do next is take it intercity where other loose networks have common interests. Corporately, I wonder if any large firm has tried this sort of idea at lunchbreaks etc.
A few years back I was on the board of a professional organization in New York, and we were having a lot of issues with having a large chapter (over 700 members locally) who were scattered over the five boroughs of New York City and didn’t feel connected to the organization (and couldn’t get to meetings). For those who may not have experienced it first hand, that is not a huge geographic area, but population density and traffic means it can take 2-3 hours one way to get to a meeting or social event. As a result we decided to do come network building/get acquainted events as “pub arounds” or “dine arounds” (for the non-drinkers).
It was the same concept as your Coffee Challenge, except we held them simultaneously in locations across the geographic area, to make it easy for members living near a location to attend with nearby colleagues, rather than have to come into Manhattan for a “big event”, which was the norm. We deliberately tried to limit group attendance to 10-12 people at each location, so some good conversation could develop. To ensure success, I trained a group of moderators…very simply, nothing fancy…by giving them a list of good conversation starters related to communications (our common focus), and some pointers about how to draw people into the conversation.
We planned about 10 groups, with five in Manhattan and five in outlying suburbs. Most of the Manhattan ones were pub locations, and most of the suburbs were diner locations (hence “dine around”). Settings distinctly casual, meetings held after work (6-8 pm).
I’d love to report that they were wildly successful, but in fact only two of them were. One diner outside of town had a very gregarious group (of future leaders), and one pub in town had a successful group, where a group of younger members had a great time discovering some kindred spirits. In both cases, the groups were strong talkers and just ran with the opportunity. In the ones that were unsuccessful, almost all had too few people…no critical mass. As a result, the suggested topics became a checklist to get through before the end of the meeting, and people took turns answering in a formal, round-robin sort of way. Not surprisingly, when we got the feedback on the event, most of the people who had a weak experience were lukewarm or thought it was a bad idea. The two groups where it all came together loved it, and some professional relationships started that continue today.
I still think it’s a good idea for community building…perhaps as a kickoff event for a new community, and will be interested to hear how your Coffee Challenge goes!
Question concerning motivating participants (May 20, 2005):
Recently I have started to work in a small private company, which provides e-learning. I am very interested in online facilitation since I am a total novice in it. I am already facing some difficulties. Participants I am dealing with at the moment were sent to this training by the company management and that’s why most of them are not really interested or motivated to participate. They don’t come to chat rooms, nor do they work on assignements. That’s pretty much all they have to do. I am sending them “motivation letters” with encouragement but nothing really happens.
I’ve been reading books about e-moderation and e-facilitation but some first hand advice would do me good as well. How did you manage to motivate the participants? What shall I do?
Chris, I loved your response. And my experience in the business world totally syncs up with what you said. If the members are accountable/evaluated on some participation level defined by their managers, they will participate, even if grudgingly. In my company the problem has been that many of the people were older (pre-computer generation) and slow to adopt what they perceive to be “time-wasting chit-chat” or “chat rooms”. It just isn’t readily apparent to them what the value is, since they have no direct personal experience with it.
Which leads me to one important point to add to what Chris wrote. Make it SIMPLE for them to participate. The chat/message component should be integrated with their normal work tools. If they are in e-mail a good bit of the day, make it possible to click a button within an e-mail and reply automatically to the “official” system without logging in. If they have to log in somewhere, make it so they are into the index or reply area of the site with one click.
You might also consider brown bag lunches or some other informal format for the people who can get together to have a chance to see how OTHER groups/companies structure their exchanges. They need a frame of reference to see what’s good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable, well executed/poorly executed. They need to see the style of communication…that it tends to be informal and conversational, and that there are occasionally typos…and that everyone will be okay with that. If you have older members, I think you’ll find that this pays off in giving them a comfort level and may increase participation. Unless the older people can become comfortable with the new technology in a “safe” or traditional way, you may never get them to really use the tools. (I say that with respect, being an older person myself!) :)
Finally, everyone participating, especially for the first time, should be personally acknowledged! Once they have worked up the courage to post that first message (which is a big hurdle for people to get over), then someone should be on the receiving end to thank them and welcome them and comment on the posting…and try to draw in some other people as well. A skilled moderator knows how to ask open ended questions back to the person who posted, or to name key individuals in the community who should respond to the posting. Both will get a conversation started, and once you do, the group will all benefit.
Most of the large online communities have guidelines, tips, and training for members and moderators (or used to in the early days…I haven’t checked recently). Here’s a link that has some information and references you might find helpful. It’s an Australian site:
Another helpful article might be:
Question concerning merging two large, established communities (February 25, 2005):
I currently manage an online community with chat and forums. Our membership has over 57,000 usernames registered. My company just purchased another website which also has a chat and forums community. The community of our newly acquired site has about 45,000 registered usernames…We plan on launching the two forums into a new forums software so that they’ll both be on the same platform.
My question for you… Do you think I should merge the two communities into one huge community? FYI, they are both Christian sites so the types of discussion are the same. The only difference is that one audience tends to be more conservative and the other more liberal. So what do you think? Merge?
I have facilitated many communities over the last 20 years, but more often I have participated as a member. It’s from the member perspective that I would answer the question about merging the two communities into one “huge” community.
I know I don’t have to remind this group that one of the key dynamics of any successful community is trust among the members. There is also an element of trust that exists between the members and the facilitators, as well as the members and the sponsor/host. If that trust is breached…on any front…the community will lose members. A merger represents an opportunity to breach the trust of members…in both groups.
It’s all too easy to think of a community as a “thing” that we as moderators or sponsors control. There is a kind of ownership implication in the question of “merging two communities”. Unfortunately, communities aren’t corporations or other forms of legal entity…they are affinity affiliations. I don’t think it’s possible to merge them without the voluntary acceptance *in advance* of the members of both communities. Otherwise, there will be a violation of trust. Members will suddenly have content they have shared with a known group (in trust) revealed to a large number of total strangers. Dynamics in each group will be strained while leading contributors in each group retire a bit to wait and see if they are still the experts or leaders, or whether someone new in the group knows more than they do (or asserts that they do). Once an established community has to go through the uncertainty of change and the influx of many unknown people, the dynamics that made each community unique and successful will die. Now, in a perfect world, new ones will reemerge, if both communities are open to the change, and everyone will pick up and go forward.
A successful merger will not happen by accident. It will be the result of deliberate actions that take the members’ needs into account. I suggest the following process for the community owners would be one that would put my own fears to rest if I were a member, and would encourage me to continue contributing to a merged community (especially a “huge” one!):
1. Alert each group that there is a potential for merging the groups
2. Ask for candid feedback and concerns about merging (get the moderators/key members on board first, so they can participate in the discussions by offering positive benefits)
3. Highlight any benefits the group would gain from a merger (such as wider opinion, improved hosting, greater activity)
4. Take a vote in the community (and then honor the outcome of the vote!)
5. Arrange a temporary online community space for the leaders of each community (moderators and 3-5 of the most active members) where they can get acquainted and discuss their own concerns/issues
6. Set a date well in advance for when the communities will merge (if that is the decision)
7. Start publicizing to both groups when it will occur, and what it will mean for each of them (especially if there will be a change in the software application for one of the groups!).
8. Give the new group an update after a reasonable period of time about the successes (and failures!) of the merger.