This is the second in a series of three blog posts where I discuss the role of community strategy, operations and tactics - and share lessons we've learned at The Community Roundtable working with hundreds of members and clients.
City planning has been around since well before President Washington commissioned Pierre Charles L'Enfant to lay out a new federal capital in the 1790s. Why did city planning evolve? Because letting cities grow organically caused increasing problems as they grew – making them at best hard to navigate and at worst toxic and dangerous. Living in Boston, I am at the mercy of poor city planning every time I drive downtown because it grew organically. Intentional and thoughtful city planning helps people get around and use a city successfully and safely. In the same way, good community planning proactively and assertively architects online communities to make them navigable, enjoyable and safe spaces that help people get where they want to go efficiently.
Designing, architecting and creating policy, governance, moderation and technology structures are the operational elements of community management. To build this community infrastructure takes skill, investment and time but is currently often taken for granted or is under-appreciated in its impact on engagement. When crafted well, community infrastructure recedes into the background and is almost hidden the way a paved sidewalk might be.
Because online communities are relatively new, the operational elements that support and reinforce – or inhibit – engagement are not always well understood. When operational supports do not align with the community strategy, tactics and business environment they will neutralize, inhibit or even subvert engagement. Community architecture also has a significant impact on ease of use and the efficiency of value generation - in essence it limits community productivity . When it is ignored, it can cause what John Stepper has called the ‘grass ceiling’ – the limit to which tactical approaches can generate engagement and value.
So, how do you go about auditing your community for operational effectiveness?
- Identify the extrinsic motivators of your community members – both within the community and in the larger environment in which the community sits. How do members get recognized, rewarded or punished for their contributions? Are the extrinsic motivators in the community at odds with the wider environment?
- Identify the easiest behaviors in the community and in the larger environment. How do they map to member value and business value?
- Examine the member experience – is there an orderly and easy way to navigate pathways or are members assaulted with conflicting or too many choices about how to engage?
- Look at how easy is it for members to understand the social context and cultural norms. Do they feel safe and comfortable in the community environment?
- Explore. Is it easy to see where people congregate to catch up? Where to go for rich subject matter expertise? How to find community leaders?
- Look at the platform architecture. How does the configuration of spaces, groups and features align with the behaviors and information flows that will most efficiently support your community strategy?
- Check your metrics. Are they aligned with the behaviors that most efficiently generate value?
- Finally, look at leadership. Is it clear who is responsible for different aspects of the community – from specific groups and spaces to policies to infrastructure to content?
The more conflicts there are between how the community operates and how the surrounding environment operates, the harder it will be for people to understand, feel comfortable and engage. While some difference is ideal – you want to introduce and encourage a networked way of communicating and collaborating – too much will hobble the ability for the community to form.
Communities are great mechanisms for changing behavior – they can help shape and change cultural norms in a fluid way. However, to use them in this way requires a strong understanding of community operations – and how to incrementally adjust infrastructure, policies, management practices and governance to maintain both comfort and challenge.
Operations is not sexy – it’s the hard work of laying roads, training people, building bridges and establishing a police force – however, when done well, it figuratively paves the way for community success. It can be the difference between encouraging a member to hack a trail through a rain forest with a machete and asking them to walk down the street in New York City – both are possible but one is much more likely to happen.