The Community Manager conundrum

Angela Ashenden

Thursday, April 26, 2012 by

Yesterday I took part in an “IBM Social Business Briefing“, a roundtable event in London run by IBM partner Collaboration Matters (who also ran  the Collaboration Diner session at UCExpo I blogged about a few weeks back). The event, which is becoming a regular session, is designed to be an opportunity for business leaders to explore this new disruptive trend and what it means for their businesses. Yesterday the topic of discussion was the role of the community manager – what they should do, what their skill set needs to be, and who they should report to within the organisation.

This is a widely debated topic, and so not surprisingly it was not hard to keep the discussion active for the two-hour session. It was a good reminder for me that businesses are approaching this challenge from many different perspectives, and that there is no simple solution to the problem. By the end there was a sense that we had asked more questions than we had answered, and I think that demonstrates the scale of the challenge.

A key issue for the group related to defining the skillset required for a community manager, to enable organisations to create a job specification that will allow them to recruit an external individual. (Note that we talked about this mainly in the context of an internal online community to support knowledge sharing etc.) My view on this is that there is a particular type of person who is suited to the role, and their skills are innate, not learned. The individual is typically someone who already has a very large network of colleagues and friends both inside and outside the organisation, someone who naturally engages other people, who is liked by many, and is often very charismatic. Interestingly this type of person is often found in the role of programme management; they are good at organising others to get a job done, at getting to know others’ strengths and weaknesses, and how to get the best out of people.

To some extent they are a corporate version of a charity worker – someone who is enthusiastic about the initiative, who might give up their spare time to achieve the desired result, and – most importantly of all – is selfless about doing so. Beware those who are too keen to be seen to be carrying out this role, as typically they will be more interested in broadcasting their own view, whereas they need to be encouraging participation by others if the community is to succeed. The word “nurture” is appropriate here – it’s about sowing the seeds and encouraging others to take small steps, a little at a time. Over time, momentum grows, and the community manager’s role changes, or at least decreases in terms of involvement needed. However, it doesn’t disappear completely; there may still be a need to manage the scope of the community, and suggest potential off-shoots as required.

This post has got quite long, so I want to just mention one more thing for now: what we should call these people. “Community Manager” is the mot de jour, but some have questioned the “manager” aspect, concerned that it implies some sense of leadership or hierarchy, which is absolutely against the principle of social business. For me, “facilitator” is better, as it suggests a more back seat role, guiding rather than controlling. However, even this has issues – it suggests that the individual is to an extent an outsider, without the relevant topic knowledge, and I believe an understanding of the purpose and context of the community is vital if you are to effectively encourage participation. Without the respect of your peers in the community, it will be very hard to get people involved.

So that’s my (rather long) two penneth. Do you agree, or do you think I’ve missed anything? All comments welcome!

Posted in Collaboration

6 Responses to The Community Manager conundrum

  1. I’ve always thought the term “manager” was a little misleading. I think you are pretty spot on in your assessment of how the community manager should operate. Good insight!

  2. I definitely agree with your assessment on the skillset required. As I said at the session, for me this person is like the host at a party – making sure everybody’s got a drink, making introductions, checking no-one is left in a corner by themselves, and if necessary taking the lead on getting the dancing going. And that person definitely wouldn’t be called the party manager. However, facilitator still isn’t right either, so I think we are stuck with Community Management as the topic and the title in the absence of something better.

    I also think a key point is that an organization actually needs multiple communities inside, and extending outside. There’s a need for this topic to be understood by everyone in the organisation, like marketing, because it pervades. Maybe we need a Chief Community Officer roll to coordinate the topic, the people involved and to encourage the right behaviours.

    • Can’t spell s/b role in that last sentence.

    • Angela Ashenden says:

      Thanks David. I absolutely agree regarding multiple communities – and each needs their own community manager (substitute title as appropriate), who again needs to have a good understanding of the topic and purpose of their community. Like you say, it would make sense to have someone who acts as the glue for the various community managers – not to manage them per se, instead to encourage the sharing of best practices, and to provide an independent perspective, perhaps.

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