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Community Manager or the Art of Ambiguity: an introduction

March 21, 2011

This article was originally published on the Boostzone Institute’s blog on March 23rd 2010.

What is discussed here is the Enterprise 2.0 Community Managers view, focusing primarily (although not exclusively) on the internal side of it, rather than the social media marketing individuals.

Last fall, Dion Hinchcliffe wrote about the online community manager as the “jack of all trades” in his blog, and his view generated some discussion among Boostzone members and fellows. Hinchcliffe’s diagram is rich and exhaustive, with responsibilities spanning 11 different areas, as diverse as can be, ranging from Platform Management to Brand Management and Staff Development. Among the reactions to the graph, Dominique Turcq liked the approach but thought it made it an unsustainable job and therefore community management should not be just a job definition. I worried about putting all these responsibilities on one head (or even one community management team) and argued that rather the entire organization should take the E2.0 train, and share the load. Philippe Masson, commented that in his past responsibilities as Capgemini’s global leader of the strategy consultants community, with a team to support the assignment, his focus was more fundamental: provide a shared aspiration for the community members, entertain a climate of trust amongst them, and promote the value and fight for the values of the community with group executives.

Then last week, I was asked again about the optimal E2.0 Community Managers’ role description, and how to recruit some. Corporations express some real concerns behind questions about this role:

  • Is this role really needed – isn’t planning for E2.0 mainly deciding about the tools and the content?
  • About the boundaries, in the new paradigm where managers are asked to become team animators – who does what?
  • The Enterprise 2.0 is not a community, nor even a community of communities, it is much more fluid than this, and so is there any use for community management?
  • As a resource, wouldn’t such jobs be an overhead and just go at the next bump in the economy? Any resulting risks?
  • Is there already a market for skilled Community Managers and are they becoming rising stars that companies will hunt and fight over?
  • What authority and power should they have? Could they be trainees? Should they be seniors or executives?
  • Should they be dedicated to this role or can they do something else?

A list of questions addressing different areas, from different contexts, which leads us to presume that there are no standard job description, nor generic rules to get it organized.

Organizations which are still very hierarchical, with information flowing through strict paths, will stumble even more on the Community Management concept. Anyway, the question can be seen from two perspectives: how should the organization address the issue, and what are the main tasks and skills for a community manager (or a community management team).

Organization perspective: beyond community management, a need for governance

Organizations that have already started their transformation are taking mixed routes, but they all have a predominant and critical idea in mind when it comes to community management: foster adoption, i.e. get  participants onboard and make them contribute and find usefulness. In short, make it all alive.

For organizations in the early stages of adoption and deployment, often a steering committee shares the duties: it gathers the heads of transformer functions such as IT, Communication and HR, heads of client functions such as R&D, Marketing or Sales, project management, and community management. The Enterprise 2.0 project managers lead areas distinct from community management: technical interlock, coordination between vendors and internal IT development team, deployment planning, just to mention a few. The Steering Committee works even better when a champion and top executive leads it, and when it incorporates a few prime evangelists. The higher the steering committee members are in the organization chart, the better. They do not need to meet often, as once they are identified it gives the two key players, the community manager and the project manager, the necessary support to make decisions and impact the organization (be it to obtain resources, engage sustaining programs or elaborate further organizational transformation).

community management

This type of structure becomes less formal in more mature organizations, though basically the roles continue.

Community manager skills and task

The community manager, as pictured in such an arrangement, is both the adoption leader and the voice of users – toward the other members of the steering committee, and beyond when necessary. Animation must be subtle, since a community is not an audience and a community manager must step aside from users. Her/his daily tasks are online introductions, offline encouragements, as little moderation as possible, spread the news of the value of Enterprise 2.0 in everyday’s business life, and of the successful initiatives that are rooted there. Adoption is the number one concern, mainly in early stages: it is good to organize some relays such as ambassadors (can also be called advocates, or many other titles) and early adopters. Ambassadors may become more important as the organization appropriates the Enterprise 2.0 model, and have roughly the same duties as Community Managers, although they probably will be more visible as they are closer to the users, and community management will not be their primary role.

Community management may be a thankless role when there are complaints or when executives put pressure to ensure success, and as such holders need a very resilient character. The art of stimulating participation is difficult to master: help each and everyone to step forward in their collaborative identity, without being in the front line, always add value, avoid moderating as much as possible though do make the ethics known.

Some clues … to adapt to the context

  • Yes, community management is needed in Enterprise 2.0, although it may not be linked to specific forums or groups but addresses the wider community engagement.
  • Community management is less about simple animation, more about backstage work to ensure the ecosystem is healthy, alive and useful to its inhabitants. As such it leads to generating value for and from the community. It may be relayed by ambassadors, themselves being super-users and mentors to others, and doing it on top of their regular job.
  • Whether it means a dedicated roles depends on each case; but they must have direct access to the organization’s decision makers, and get listened to when they follow-up on the wider community’s life.
  • Community managers probably can be hired externally, yet they must catch up with the culture and the history – at least recent – of the organization.
  • Over the time, community management might become less formal and fade, however ambassadors will carry on.

One of the community managers I know defines her role as making it useless: she tries to drive enough momentum into the organization, so that she may eventually hand over the very small compulsory portion of her work to anyone atop of the organization, without jeopardizing the result. The ultimate ambiguity.

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