By now every organization has started to think about online communities, collaboration and knowledge exchange as a key advantage to their business. Many of them have tried and are still trying to build strong employee networks to enable their organization to be more agile and responsive, to increase work satisfaction and employee engagement, to be able to tap into the collective knowledge of their employees, to solve problems faster, and ultimately gain competitive advantage.
However, several organizations fail to achieve these long-awaited benefits. After working with several internal online communities, some patterns emerge. I have picked in this article my top 10 lessons learned while working to build strong and vibrant employee online networks.
1. A tool does not make a community
Even if it seems obvious, I must start with the most essential thing: for a strong and vibrant online community, you will first need a community!
An online community is an empty and lonely place if you do not have a real community behind it. The platform must be chosen to enable your existing communities.
Think communities first
I am still surprised on how little attention is given to the engagement of employees in building the community versus the time spent on the choice and engineering of the online platform to enable the community. Many organizations focus on providing the online community solution, without putting the effort in building the people community first, or at least looking for existing employee communities.
- The hardest part about building online communities is not the technology part, it is rather the community part. A lot of the things that make a strong community have nothing to do with the tool. Independent of the tool, the real challenge is making this space vibrant, making people feel welcome and comfortable to participate frequently, share issues, problems, even failures, provide help and advice to each other, collaborate, innovate. This has much more to do with your company culture and ways of working than with anything else.
- While the technology is not the hardest part, you should give it the needed attention as it can be a major blocker once your online communities are well established and growing.
What about the company culture?
A famous quote by management guru Peter Drucker says: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast “. Before embarking on big programs to build employee online communities, even if strategically backed up, you must ask yourself whether there is a culture to match it. In general, are people already networking, exchanging, asking for help, online or offline? Great companies have a strong sense of community among their employees.
- If your answer is YES, then you’re good to go. Identify the existing communities, involve them and ultimately give them the tool they want to enable them to collaborate and exchange more efficiently on a global scale.
- If your answer is NO, then you need to set the foundation. This will mean a big transformation for your organization and will need to primarily tackle the culture and behaviors change you are looking for, while also providing the technology environment to match it. You could potentially start with a pilot in a group or division where the sense of community is stronger.
It will take time!
Be prepared with patience and perseverance as building a community (in general and then online) is a long-term process. At the end of the day it is about the people and creating the safe environment for them to exchange. It will require a big effort to establish it if your organization does not already have existing communities that are already built informally, offline or online.
2. Think big, but start small
Don’t launch too big. I have seen many good efforts in launching online communities getting distilled and slowly dying off because the initial scope was too broad and the communities failed to answer the essential question: who and what is it for?
Instead, launch slowly, find the first 3-5 online communities, the first 50-100 members, and grow from there!
Your best place to start are the already existent communities.
If you already have some groups that are just screaming for a better online space to enable them, just give them what they want! The most successful online communities that I have experienced are the ones that started offline. People who naturally got in touch with each other, asked for help, shared info, knew who the experts are, connected regularly. Give these guys an online tool that matches what they need, involve them, train them if needed and it will become vibrant as this nucleus starts expanding and involving other colleagues.
3. Know your audience
How do you know where your vibrant communities are? You can start scanning the organization for signs, interview stakeholders, or even conduct a Social Network Analysis (SNA).
Not only this will flag your first target groups, but it will also highlight key points of contact, opinion leaders or subject matter experts.The analysis will return, among other things, who are the “nodes” of your network. These are people that everybody tends to contact for help or information.
These are the key people you want to involve in your launch. Work with them to understand the audience, their interactions, their ways of working so that you can provide a tool fit for purpose.
To perform a Social Network Analysis, you would need to use a combination of Social Network Analysis surveying tool together with an analysis tool to import, summarize, analyze and interpret the results. For example, I have used ONA Surveys and NetMiner , but there are several SNA software that you can review.
4. Don’t open an empty shop
There’s nothing worse than opening a shop with empty shelves. Before launching it wider, make sure you have enough relevant material in your online community to attract new “customers”.
You should have a core group that you engaged offline and online before you launch an online community. Use these existent members to load relevant material, documents, simulate discussions if needed. Let them use the online community for a while on a smaller scale.
Have a couple of interesting discussions and documents prepared for the first weeks during and after launch. When you communicate about an online community, it should look alive to showcase its possibilities!
5. Face time is priceless
Recognize the importance of face to face even with the best in class tools. Yes, part of the purpose of online communities is to enable collaboration across the board, independent of time, geographies or business units, without the need of travel!
However, when possible, face to face events are irreplaceable to strengthen the sense of community. People will always feel more comfortable sharing with people they have met in person first.
- At least the core group of your community, the advocates, the leaders, key contacts should meet once face to face to plan and launch the community to an initial core group. Representatives could potentially travel on several locations for a wider community launch. On regular intervals, at least once a year, they could organize another face to face event to reconnect.
- For the wider group of members, think at least how to engineer some events to bring them together online, through telepresence, webinars, Skype conferences, to make them exchange and talk in real time. Use technology to make the experience as “real” as possible.
6. Don’ t miss middle management
Some initiatives do a great job in building a collaborative culture and working with very high senior leaders to drive the change. However, even if top senior leaders will back up your initiative , it is the middle managers who control the resources.
Middle managers need to back up your communities as you will need their teams to dedicate time, change ways of working , collaborate with other teams and sometimes share individual or team failures!
7. Get comfortable with chaos
If you’re lucky, your online communities will get vibrant as employees start to exchange. As numbers grow, there will come a point where it will get chaotic, and you will need to resist the urge of putting too much hierarchy and formalities in place.
I have seen many communities suffocated by formal goals of knowledge capture assigned to what was, in essence, an informal community coming together to solve problems.
Communities address the knowledge management challenge by offering a market place, where a chaotic exchange of information, insights, experience, ideas can happen. They create enthusiasm and pull because of this, and people can exchange in a natural way as long as they see the environment as safe.
Accepting that online communities work more organically, that they are somehow chaotic, but do provide a lot of business value and insights is a difficult thing for some managers to do.
8. Find the right level of categorization
While you cannot prevent some level of chaos in online communities, you will need to take some measures to make it easy for people to find the information they are looking for and to know where to add certain information.
You can use categorization and tagging to prevent clutter, but try to find the balance between helpful categorization vs. creating yet another organizational silo.
You will miss some of the key benefits communities deliver if you put in too much structural hierarchy. Communities are more informal, organic structures that can cut through traditional organizational groups and silos, enabling wider collaboration and innovation. Make sure that your chosen categorization, groups and sub-groups does not re-create these barriers in a different environment.
9. Don’t over measure
Your community will not grow the more you measure it. Metrics and KPIs are useful to inform you on your progress and challenges, to trigger actions and corrections.
With today’s technologies you have a lot of options, but resist the temptation to measure anything that you can measure in your online communities! Rather, align your metrics to your goals. What are you trying to achieve? Is your goal 100 posts per month? Or cost and time savings, employee engagement?
Take time to think about it and choose a few indicators to track progress. Also keep in mind that one of the most powerful business measure for communities are their success stories. “Saving 1 million dollars because an incident was prevented through a quick exchange in a discussion form” is much more powerful than reaching 1’0000 hits on the online community website!
10. You have to keep going
There is an ongoing effort to keep the online community going and grow. There is a bigger effort at the beginning to find and engage around a common interest and purpose. But even after launch and initial engagement, you need to continuously ensure that members have a reason to join, you need to re-energize activity when needed, produce some relevant content, provide regular challenges, and ensure that the new employees also get converted!
Continuously working on the motivational drivers of members is key, and don’t forget to also make it fun! In the end, you would need as much effort to gain and to retain the participation of members. But as your numbers grow, your existing enthusiastic members will help you do this faster.
Starting to build a community
If you are looking for more materials, examples, and information on how to start thinking about building online communities, the Community Roundtable is a useful resource site. They have been working with and surveying community managers regularly and freely distribute their analysis results, insights, models and frameworks.