Archive | November, 2011

Community the Grateful Dead Way

29 Nov

I love the Grateful Dead. One of the things that I find most amazing about them is that everyone in the band is doing something interesting. There’s no one slacking just because their part isn’t front and center. When I focus my attention on any of the individual instruments, I feel as though there’s enough there that I could happily listen to just that part. And the truly amazing thing is that it all comes together as a cohesive whole.

I was reading the other day about the process the band used to pull together the material for “Blues for Allah.” (cite, date, etc. Some context about the album for us non-Dead Heads) I realized that the Dead were a template for the way a successful community should be.

When they decided that it was time to record the album, they wanted it to be something new, something that pushed the boundaries for them. So, they decided that no one would bring any material to the sessions. They would just get together in the studio and jam. And when they discovered something that they liked, they would capture it. On subsequent days they would jam some more, but they would revisit those nuggets, refine them, extend them, and re-work them until finally, they had an album. And, to my ears, it’s brilliant.

For me, that’s what an idea community looks like. Everybody brings their best. We put it all together, we figure out what works and what doesn’t. We refine and extent. And if we’re doing it well, the results will astonish those around us.

One final thought… I think there is a connection between the community spirit that fueled the members of the Dead and the incredible community of “Deadheads” that the band inspired. Community is like that, what we do as individuals and leaders in our community shapes the community itself. If we want to “have” community, we need to “be” community.

8 Ways to Know Whether You Are Ready for an Online Community

21 Nov

Would an online community help make your association more vibrant? Would it promote greater engagement between and with your members? Here are a set of questions that will help you evaluate whether an online community could be beneficial for your association:

1. Do you have a core set of volunteers?

A core set of individuals who are passionate about the association and the constituency it serves are paramount to a community’s success. In most online communities, only a small fraction of the active members contribute content. To get a community started you need to figure out who those core members are and turn them into your “community team.”

2. Do you produce a significant amount of content?

Are you producing a lot of documents that your members cannot find elsewhere? Most associations are very good at producing content. That’s great, because content is one of the main drivers for getting members to come to your online community regularly. If possible, try to use the community as your primary vehicle for delivering content.

3. Do your members have specialized knowledge or expertise that would be valuable to others in the association?

For trade and professional associations, it is often the case that the acknowledged experts in your field are your members, and they will be happy to share their experience and expertise with others. Since many people join associations looking for specialized knowledge, the rest of your members will find great value in the accumulated knowledge/expertise that the community provides.

4. Is there a lot of content available that relates to your association’s focus, but it is scattered across a number of blogs and web sites?

One aspect of the Internet revolution is that it made it possible for anyone to be a publisher. The downside is that it can be hard to find high quality relevant information. An online community site can not only serve as a central location for cataloguing all of this information, but in addition, the members of the community can help categorize and rate this information so that it even more useful to others.

5. Are your members interested in connecting with others from their profession?

Well, that was almost a rhetorical question wasn’t it? I don’t think I’ve come across an association in which people didn’t want to network. An online community serves as another way for people to interact, share, and get to know one another.

6. Are you interested in feedback from your members on your content or your services?

And I certainly hope that this question was rhetorical as well. The primary purpose of the association is to serve the needs of its members, and its hard to do that if you don’t understand who your members are and what their needs are. An online community makes it possible for association staff and members to engage in meaningful, ongoing conversations that will result in better understanding.

7. Are your members distributed over a large geographic area?

If your association’s members are confined to a relatively small geographical area, then it may be possible for them to get together face-to-face on a fairly regular basis. If that’s not the case, then an online community is likely the best way for them to connect and interact.

8. Do you host an annual conference for your association, but want interactions between members to continue year round?

For many members, the association’s annual conference is an exciting opportunity to connect with others in their field, share experiences, and learn. A well run conference creates a sense of community amongst the attendees. But its hard to keep that spirit alive until the next conference comes around. An online community provides a platform in which the connections established at your conference can be preserved and strengthened throughout the year.

Help! My Community is Failing

15 Nov

It happens to online communities of all sizes. A community is established, the invitations go out, discussions are initiated, interesting content is posted, but there just isn’t much response. The initial enthusiasm of the organizers drains away. The community is in danger of dying. Can it be saved?

In most cases, I think the answer is yes. If the original community organizers were driven by a passion that they wanted to share, then it’s very likely that others will share that passion as well. But even if there are reasonable number of people passionate about a given topic or field, it does not mean that an active and engaged community will spring into existence the very moment that the opportunity presents itself.

People are busy. It seems like they’re getting busier all the time. For someone to devote even a fraction of their time to a new activity, there pretty much has to be an obvious and immediate value that they’re going to receive. This is bad news for newly formed online communities, because much of the value in the community is, at the risk of being tautological, the community.

Catch-22.

How does any online community survive these birthing pains? There are 4 key ingredients for an online community to succeed:

  • Time: Communities are about relationships. If your online community does not spring from an established set of relationships amongst its members, then it will take time for those relationships to develop. And developing relationships in a purely online environment is going to be slower than developing them face to face. If you have an opportunity to bring your community together physically, then do it because those relationships will carry over into the online universe.
  • Core Members: You need a set of individuals who are passionate about the community. People who will reach out to others and get them involved. People who will start up discussion threads, knowing that there may not be a lot of activity. People who are willing to live with a community that for perhaps several months may consist of only a few people interacting with each other. You need to make sure that your core members feel connected to one another because they *are* the community which will seed further growth.
  • Content: Online communities for professional and trade associations will have members who come looking for the specialized knowledge and skills that have been one of the traditional strengths of associations. You need to do everything you can to ensure that they find value in the community. Over the longer term, the community will indeed move to a more inclusive model (i.e. social curation), but initially, you and your core members need to find content that will be of interest to your members. And not only do you need to find this content, and make it available via the community, but you need to use it as a starting off point for further interactions.
  • Seeding Interaction: As with the need to initially ensure that there is a good flow of content into the community, you also need to ensure that there is a level of interactivity which may exceed that which occurs naturally when you only have a small number of active users. You need to ask questions, even though you know who is going to respond and how they are going to respond. You need to make sure that those active members really do respond, even though they know there’s not many people listening. It has to be obvious that there is an ongoing level of interaction in the community, even if those interactions are not immediately satisfying your needs for new information and new relationships.

Are there other key ingredients? There may be, and I’d love to hear from you about what has worked and what hasn’t worked in your experience.

Maximizing Volunteer ROT

8 Nov

No, not volunteer decay — Return On Time. That is, getting the most from the time your volunteers have to given.

My experience with associations comes from being a volunteer, primarily with the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). I imagine that my experiences as a volunteer are probably representative of most people volunteering time for an association. So, I think that the following observations are likely true in general, and represent a challenge in trying to get the most value from volunteers. As a volunteer, I find:

  • The time I can commit to the organization varies wildly. Some weeks I am able to put in 10 – 15 hours, while others its basically zero.
  • Occasionally, I have prolonged periods of absence (say 2 – 6 months) due to other commitments.
  • Its difficult for me to predict in advance how much I can commit to.
  • My contributions often occur outside of normal business hours.
  • I am remote from the ACM’s headquarters, so my opportunities for face-to-face interactions with staff are limited.

The project management side of me recoils in horror at this. Trying to establish any sort of plan when you are faced with this level of uncertainty is pretty much impossible. But the problems go ever deeper than that. The lack of continuity in my interactions both with staff and other volunteers means that its very easy for my contributions to fall through the cracks. It also means that I am not necessarily well-coordinated with other volunteers, and so we may up working at cross purposes.

One way to help ameliorate these problems is through an online community which includes both staff and other volunteers. Such a community would allow me to:

  • become better acquainted with people
  • to share my contributions with a wider audience
  • to coordinate more effectively
  • serve as a repository for institutional knowledge
This doesn’t solve the problem of uncertainty around how much time I can commit, but I do think it means that when I can commit, my time will be used more effectively.

Too Much Information

1 Nov
Information overload.

This is the newest and greatest challenge of our information age: With all of the content published everyday, how can we make sense of it, organize it and reference it after the fact? Clearly we need some way to separate the wheat from the chaff. Recommender systems, such as Amazon uses, are one potential answer, but they’re a little hit or miss.

The best judges of value are still people. Even better, are people like us. Those who share are interests and background. This is where the concept of a folksonomy is effective; a list of tags and categories supplied by other users. In the context of a focused private community, that folksonomy can be powerful indeed.

Of course, such communities don’t spring into existence magically. That’s a result of the 90/9/1 rule: 90% of of the members in the community simply ready the content, 9% will add comments, tags, ratings, etc. to existing content, and 1% will actually generate or introduce new content. New communities tend to be small, and 1% of small is a whole lot smaller.

The secret to being an effective online community manager is to actively work to shift the proportions. Identify and empower those individuals most likely to contribute. Given them responsibility. Give them a title. Give them a prominent profile within the community. When given the chance (and the “go-ahead”) community members will add a lot of value in the form of input, content, community policing and of course, social curation. By reaching out, thanking and encouraging good social curation practices among the most active members, a vast knowledge base will build quickly. That will attract others to participate, and the community will thrive.