Monday, 19 September 2011


In this first of a series of posts about what leadership of online communities means, I want to explore the contextual aspects of our actions in supporting them. 

Austen Hunter in the Social learning Community ( ) asks “... if you understand the broad principles, context and “why”* social learning is important what are the practical steps to making the change in your org?"  

Jane Hart replied “It's not a matter of "implementing" change - but encouraging people to get involved in groups - talking and sharing - and then the change will happen itself. From Command and Control to Encourage and Engage . In other words trying to implement "social" top down just won't work.” ( ) .  Approaches such as that suggested recently by Tammara Combs ( ) will rapidly be seen as attempts to manipulate. They are an anathema to the spirit of open collaboration that is well established in the social learning workplace.

In this, the first of a series of posts that will be concerned with the “gentle hand” of leadership (Harold Jarche) in communities, I want to start with looking at the place online communities have in an organisation.  

What happens in an online community that is working well?. Someone asks a question based on a real need in the workplace. Others engage either out of experience or because they have a similar need out of their workflow or out of interest in the topic. So what happens is the creation of a group within the community. It may be totalyy informal or it may get a name.  Others will join in, either because they are invited or because they are interested. It will always be transient, because people will make their contribution and will eventually leave the topic because this engagement has given all it can. The only question is the timeframe – a few hours to maybe many months. However for a time it is very real and will provide ideas and the opportunity to crystallise peoples thinking around the topic and to move work ahead. It may lead members or the whole group off in a new direction of thought and action. 

When the Social Learning Community (SLC) started with a rush I conducted an analysis of what happened to capture the principles and practices that lay behind the immediate success ( ). The start-up of this community was very fast and for a period extremely busy. Communities can't always be the way this one was for its first couple of months. They have to do what has happened now in the SLC They have to settle down into being a place where people feel free to engage with others across all kinds of boundaries to ask questions, seek help, offer insight, invite critique etc. Jane has alluded to the fact that one day the community might have passed its “use by” date and life will move on.

For the moment, members asking questions, creating threads and offering insights are stimulating a lot of thought and contribution. 

Compare that situation to another Yammer community which I am currently advising. It has had explosive initial sign-up which is great. But now what? The initiators have watched a small number of people amongst the 4000 who have joined it over a 3 month period have recognised that it provides an opportunity for open communication which will support the workflow. About 20 groups have been created by people in the community to support aspects of their and the organisation's work. 

People have seen that the community allows them to cross organisational and silo boundaries in support of their workflow and in doing so to engage with a wide variety of people concerned with their work issues. The groups are providing a way of overcoming blockages that hinder effectiveness in the workplace. They are in their infancy - some will thrive others will wither and die. New groups will be created. Harold Jarche talks about a "gentle hand" being needed to encourage groups in a community so that engagement occurs. This is true social learning. "Drinks after work" is to trivialise social learning.  

In the SLC we have, between the 900 or so of us involved, established a community that possesses and has shared a vast range of knowledge, experience and (most important) a network that is orders of magnitude greater than the community itself. It is capable of adding value to almost any aspect of the community's topic of social learning. That is power indeed and I, for one, will be doing my bit to ensure that Jane is not tempted any time soon to suggest that the SLC has run its course! 

A change management approach is needed to developing the usefulness of a community - most importantly within an organisation development context. I addressed this in my blog a few weeks ago ( working the issue of the emotional energy needed to get people to engage.

In my shed in the garden I have a toolkit which I use for my DIY. There are many tools in it - some are big favourites. I even instinctively turn to them first when tackling any job - but they are not always the most appropriate ones for the work I have to do. Translating the analogy - if people don't sense the appropriateness of using a social network, they won't use it. "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still!"  This applies as much to trying to force senior management to change culture as it does to asking a junior person in the organisation to use a network for which they see no benefit.

The trick has to be to fan the sparks of groups that emerge - by asking questions, giving ideas, seeking opinions etc so that imaginations are captured. Sparks become flames and heat is generated. People become comfortable in their communities - able to share problems, willing to give of their experience, brave enough to supportively critique others. For me these are the things that in the end foster culture change. 

I believe that in our social networks we have the chance to very subtly effect the necessary culture change through application of the "gentle hand". Good behaviour, seen as supportive to the individual in giving of their best in the workplace, has a habit of spreading.  Whilst in many organisations there is a negative, constraining or even a blame culture, that does not repeat itself in the cultures of online communities that survive and thrive.  They are more characterised by support, openness, willingness to help, listening and a longer list of similar characteristics that most of us would recognise as being likely to make us want to be part of them.  

Well nurtured, online communities and groups within them will undoubtedly enhance workplace performance and people will learn to cross boundaries and work smarter.  People in the communities will grow as a result, feeling progressively more comfortable to share and to listen to the advice and experience – and the critique – of others.  But we have a further and greater opportunity – that of establishing in the communities such a powerful culture that it spills over into the whole of working life.  If it can do that it will help the evolution of the workplace into the networked collaborative place that it needs to be to align with our wider social environments.  

As change agents within our organisations, let us recognise the channel that online communities provide to us and let us use them to help business leaders in the on-going process of reinvention of the organisation that is essential to survival in today’s environment. 

I will be blogging about some of the “how to’s” of online community leadership in a series of posts over the next few weeks.

1 comment:

  1. Many companies are planning and implementing change management initiatives. They will do so, likely at great expense, without appreciable impact because, as you put it, it will be seen as 'attempts to manipulate', just like the various engagement programmes which also, by and large, fail to gain traction. The only people who benefit from the above are the consultants who take fat payments for their snake oil, and maybe the executive who gets to be seen as the sponsor.

    Community managers/facilitators succeed with internal social and cultural transformation by "fanning the sparks of groups that emerge" and support people to do what THEY want to do and what they are interested in. They are often closest to workflows, processes, customers; trusting them to contribute to the wellbeing of the business will result in very positive outcomes.

    I hope increasingly more companies take heed of the wise counsel coming from you, Jane and Harold. (... and it will give internal community managers like myself opportunities to make a difference to people's work, and to businesses as a whole)