Pay Attention to How Social Media Communities Create ‘the Organization’

by cv harquail on September 20, 2011

Why do so many social business advocates overlook the organizational value of online communities?

Too many people dismiss online communities for not being central to the organizations they serve.  These critics dismiss communities for being merely social, just another way to chat or swap tips. Even when they acknowledge how communities can be critical for getting certain kinds of work done, they claim that communities are not sufficiently “business-like”. Worse, they dismiss community advocates and experts as “enterprise social business bleeding hearts” and “kumbayaros”.

What these under-valuers miss is the way that these communities serve a key ‘business’ purpose for their diverse and wide-ranging participants.

While the online community is not the organization, for many participants, the community is their central experience of the organization.

201109201636.jpgIt’s in their role as participants’ central experience of the organization that communities are under-appreciated, and I think it’s time we look at the unique contribution that communities make to the ‘social organization’.

Communities serve two organizational needs that are fairly well understood.

1. Communities serve participants as a way to find, share and develop understanding of things related to work.

2. Communities serve organizations as ways to focus, coordinate, and engage members in shared activity that contributes to the organization’s main goals.

Communities also serve a third, under-the-radar need of organizations —

3. Online communities serve members’ individual and collective needs for a coherent sense of “the Organization”, by creating the experience of being part of something larger, consistent, and meaningful.

The double-barreled concept of “central experience” is key here.

Online communities are central because:

  • They draw members from across the organization together into a group
  • They draw this assortment of different participants to a common set of topics
  • The participants’ conversation is anchored in a (relatively) stable and findable place
  • The shared place is created and hosted by the organization itself.

The online community aggregates, focuses, and anchors a subset of organization members in a place that belongs to the organization

Online communities create an experience for members because:

  • The community isn’t composed of abstract thoughts ‘about’ the organization, but of actual other people who act and respond.
  • The community is composed of tangible actions, reactions, expressions and feelings that participants contribute. Instead of thinking about organizational issues in ways that are isolated inside their heads, participants put stuff out into the shared space.
  • The community has an emotional tenor. Sensing, experiencing and contributing to the emotions in the community reinforces participants’ experience of the community as real, since their emotional reactions are decidedly real.
  • The community is “present” as well as past, or potential, because the community and members’ relationship to the community exists over real time.

Tangible, Material “Organization”

For the participant, the community creates a tangible subset of ‘the organization’ that’s perceived as something different from the both the collection of other organization members that surround the individual while ‘at work’, and the collection of specific individual participants in the online community.

Not a mixture but a compound, not an aggregate but a sum.  The community becomes a ‘thing’ — “the Organization”.

Centrality + Experience => Entitativity => “The ‘Organization'”

Together, the the centrality and the experience of an online community help to create for members a sense of “entitativity”. (Entitativity is the scientific word for “thing-ness”.) Unconsciously and sometimes consciously, participants experience and thus treat the community as though it were “the Organization” .

Creating a sense of “the Organization” is a critical business process. The community does not “become” the organization, but it represents the organization in the experience of the members.

What “the ‘Organization'” means for the Community Manager

When we recognize that the community is experienced as “the Organization”, the stakes are raised for the community manager. The community manager not only has to facilitate and support the community as a community (of people interacting, in helpful ways, across an array of topics), but also s/he has to manage the elements of the community that influence what people conclude about the actual organization based on how they experience the community.

Community managers have to manage “the Organization” by:

1. Intentionally crafting the tangible space.

Community managers must attend to large and small decisions that physically construct the space (e.g., names, colors, user interface, visual appearance, defaults and fields, mode of display, data in the display, etc).

They need to think of themselves as the ‘property managers’ of the organization’s online building, since the community site provides the architecture, the aesthetics and the functionality that creates the experience of “the Organization”.

2. Intentionally curating the space.

Community managers must make firm, consistent, deliberate decisions about what is discussed, what resources and participants are brought in, etc. so that the community acts and behaves in was that resonate with the larger identity and vision of the organization.

3. Facilitating the community in the organization’s style.

Community managers must demonstrate, reinforce and cultivate a spirit and a collective personality that resonates with the identity of the organization, since ultimately participants’ experience of that spirit will influence how they define their organization.

201109201626.jpgIt’s not only that the community managers must help the communities serve the organization’s larger goals; they also need to make sure that the experience of ‘the organization’ supports the larger understanding of who that organization is, what it does, and why it does what it does.

Participants will extrapolate from their central experience of the online community their sense of who “the Organization” is, and apply this to make sense of who the (whole) organization is and also to make sense of how they themselves should act.

Community Managers as Leaders

Because the online community helps to construct the organization an entity, rather than ‘just’ a conversation, Community Managers have to be recognized as more than “facilitators” or “moderators’. Because Community Managers are responsible for participants’ experience of the community, these managers have a critical — and undervalued– role as leaders in their organizations.

As leaders, community managers need to have a clear vision for the ‘central experience’ that their communities provide (a vision that is connected, I hope, to the reality of who the organizaiton is and wants to be) so that they deliberately serve that purpose of shaping what becomes “the Organization” for so many.

Image: a close-up to nature from eeicenbice
Circle of Life – For Mao Mao from Loves_TaiShan

Note: Whether communities remain ‘standalone’ conversations or morph into coherent online collectivities that span several tools on a social intranet, it’s clear that communities will become more and more critical to “social” in organizations. Eventually, these communities will organize all other forms of online organizational interactivity.


Rachel Happe September 21, 2011 at 3:07 pm

CV –
This is a great post. Thank you for articulating the role of the community manager so well. So often the role is thought of or relegated to the role of ‘responding on Facebook/forums/Twitter’ but when it is shaping the experience that important constituencies have with an organization, it is a critical and a strategic leadership position… or should be.

Janet September 23, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Kumbayeros…brilliant. Thanks for this post, I’ll be emailing it to quite a few people. Community management is so often undervalued because it’s misunderstood.

cv harquail September 23, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Hi Jane-

I’m glad that the post struck a chord with you– I do think that there is a lot more to community management. Not just other managers, but even some community managers themselves, don’t realize how deep the CM’s role should go.

I can’t take credit for the term ‘kumbayaros’ (or kumbayeros) — that’s from a post by Michael Idinopolus . Better than ‘social enterprise bleeding hearts’ at least the term ‘kumbayaros’ triggers images of a group, focused on a warm fire and enjoying the spirit of community.

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