Archive | January, 2012

The Agile Association

24 Jan
Is your association responding quickly enough to the changing needs of its members? If not, then you are probably seeing a decline in membership as people seek elsewhere for answers that might have come from you. How can you get back on track?

The software industry has gone through similar crises. Software projects were often behind schedule, and over budget. But even worse, when the systems were deployed, in many cases after years of work, people discovered that they were impossible to use or did not provide the capabilities that had been anticipated.

In reaction to this, a small number of people struck out in a new direction propelled by the idea that the whole way that software was developed was wrong. These become the leaders of the Agile movement and it has blossomed into one of the most popular ways to manage a software development.

What does this have to do with associations? I think it has everything to do with associations. Early on, the leaders of the Agile movement developed a manifesto representing their core beliefs about software development. Here they are:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Notice that the word software only occurs once. And if you replace the word software with the word systems, you have a set of guidelines that can be broadly applied to any organization that provides products or services. This then, is the foundation of the agile association.

In the software industry, adoption of agile was slow at first. The principles outlined above were often in direct opposition to “the way things are done.” But my experience is that teams that adopt agile are both successful and happy. I anticipate that associations will likewise benefit.

The Needs of the One

17 Jan

The word community derives from the same root as communal which suggests an undertaking by a group. And, of course, community is fundamentally about the relationships and activities of groups of people. Paradoxically, however, in order to get a community started, you probably need to work with people one on one, and its often useful to do it face to face as well.

A lot of people think that communities will form naturally if you simply throw a bunch of people together who have some sort of attributes in common. For example, it’s not uncommon for associations to think that since their members share a common interest, that simply creating an online community and putting their members in it will result in success.

But for a community to actually succeed, people have to derive value from participating in it. From lurkers all the way through to those who help actively manage a community, each person is has a motivation for being there and for the activities they undertake in the context of the community.

The transition from new community to successful community is a sequence of related tasks:

  • Understanding the potential value that a member could obtain from the community
  • Creating an environment where that value can be realized within the community
  • Ensuring that there is some initial value present in the community
  • Convincing members that there is value in the community
  • Ensuring that members experience the value when they participate in the community

You can’t succeed unless you succeed at each step along the way. The first step requires that you have an understanding of what your members need and want. If you have a rock solid grasp on that, you’re set. If you don’t, then consider “the needs of the one” (or the few). In other words, go talk to one of your members. Get a sense of what he or she faces on a day to day basis. Then talk to another one. Once you’ve got to know a few of your members, hopefully some common themes will start to emerge.

These themes should provide a framework for the types of value that an online community could provide. And with that in hand, you can begin to move through the tasks listed above. It’s likely to be hard work, but the reward of an online community that continuously provides value to your members will be worth it.

Private Social Network: An Oxymoron?

12 Jan

There are a number of vendors out there (and AssociCom is one) who provide private social networking tools. Sometimes when I tell people what I do for a living, I get a puzzled look of the sort people get when you talk about something like bureaucratic efficiencies. If they’re feeling conversational, I might get a question like: “Isn’t social networking all about finding and connecting with people without regard for traditional boundaries or affiliations?”

In short, private social networking sounds like an oxymoron. The notion of private runs at odds with everything that is supposed to be good about social networking. So, why would ever use such a phrase?

The answer lies in the fact that social networking or even more broadly, social media , encompasses a variety of goals and behaviours. Some of these benefit from a very open community in which you want to maximize your exposure to different people and different sources of information. Others actually benefit from more closed communities. For example, a learning community focused on a particular profession benefits from a high level of specialized knowledge in its members.

So I think private social networking does make sense, and it’s definitely not a replacement for public social networking, that is, sites like Facebook and Twitter. In fact, even if you have access to a private social networking site, I’m sure that you will continue to interact on public social networking sites with people who share your work interests.

What then, is the value in an association creating a private social networking site for their members? There are three advantages that come to mind immediately:

  1. First, as noted above, your association’s private social networking site can bring together a set of people with highly specialized knowledge. This allows the technical aspects of discussions to operate at an elevated level because there is a presumption that the audience is familiar with the core components of the field. A set of experts discussing a particular topic is an incredible learning resource for others.
  2. Second, as befits the moniker private social networking, the discussions remain within the confines of the association. There is less need for concern about how it will be perceived by the general public; although of course, there is never any perfect guarantee of privacy, any more than with other information which is shared with the membership in general. Still, my experience is that discussions can be more open and frank.
  3. Third, a private community provides an excellent channel for getting feedback from your existing members. Since the community is composed, by definition, only of members of the association, you have a platform to interact very directly with them and get a much better sense of their needs and how the association could more effectively serve them.

Overall then, not only do I think private social networking makes sense, I think there are strong motivations for any association to make it a part of their overall strategy for communicating with and delivering value to their members.

Cocktail Party Rules for Online Communities

9 Jan

My friend Marc Smith has a simple analogy that he uses to help people understand how they should behave on Twitter; his basic rule of thumb is to treat it as though you were at a cocktail party. You can see a short video clip of him discussing this on YouTube.

I was thinking about this the other day and realized the analogy is a lot more powerful than helping guide how an individual behaves in the context of Twitter. In fact, I think it can be a powerful tool to help determine whether it makes sense to establish an online community, and also about how to structure and foster engagement within such a community. I’m going to tackle the first of these today, and the second in a later posting.

In both cases though, we begin with a thought experiment: Imagine bringing your members together for a cocktail party. If your association holds conferences, this should be a fairly easy exercise. If you don’t, then it may be a little challenging if you don’t have a good sense of the interests and personalities of your members. If you fall into the latter camp, that’s probably something you need to address anyways.

So, now you’ve got this picture in your head, what does it look like? Is everyone sitting there staring into their drink? Are there a few small clusters of people chatting, but not a lot of movement or interaction? Can you imagine a few hosts making their way around the room, introducing people and getting conversations started? If not, it’s unlikely that you will be able to create a vibrant online community for your members. In fact, I’d be worried about the future of your association.

On the other hand, and hopefully this is the picture you have in mind, you see lots of groups of people chatting. Some are large and some are small. Some people seem to stick with one group, while others circulate from group to group. It may be so loud that it’s hard to hear yourself think.

Wouldn’t you like to provide a way for your members to interact like that 365 days a year? That’s the ideal online community. It’s about meeting people, renewing relationships, exchanging information, and even having some fun. In fact, if this is how you imagine your members interacting, then you need an online community, because otherwise your members will figure out how to create one without you, and you’ll have lost one more way in which your association could be valuable to your members.

The Deadly Jelly Baby

4 Jan

There is a scene in Dr. Who (Tom Baker incarnation) in which the Doctor is about to be attacked and by the inhabitants of some planet to which he responds with “Now drop your weapons, or I’ll kill him with this deadly jelly baby!” This scene is amusing, or rather at least I find it amusing, because the audience knows that threatening someone with a jelly baby is ridiculous, but since the inhabitants of the this planet lack the appropriate context, to them it is a credible threat.

It strikes me that there is a great deal of similarity between this scene, and the way that many associations launch online communities. It often seems as though the association says to its members: “Prepare to be excited because I’m going to engage you with our new online community!”

People have an intuitive sense of what it means to be engaged and they also have ideas about what online communities are, but they lack the context to be able to connect these things together in a way that seems even vaguely exciting.

This shouldn’t really be surprising. Your members’ experience on online community is likely to be rooted in sites like Facebook and Twitter which have come to dominate our thinking about social media. And if that is you conception of what online community means, it is not unnatural to wonder “How is sharing what I am having for lunch with the other members of the association going to be useful to me or to them?”

Most people are not accustomed to thinking of an online community as a place where problems are solved or where knowledge is generated. But that is exactly what an online community for your association should be all about. It should be a place where members come together to share their experience and their knowledge. And that is exciting.

So, when you launch an online community for your association, you have to lay the groundwork so that your members will understand how they will benefit from it. You have to make sure that there is interesting and relevant content there. You have to make sure that you have respected members of the community in place as leaders to help foster discussion and answer questions. Then you can go from “deadly jelly baby” to healthy online community.

Do You Know Why?

3 Jan

Since the company that I work for builds a platform for online communities, it should come as no surprise that people come to us and ask us for our help in getting an online community started. A lot of the initial questions that they have for us relate to the underlying technology: What features does the system have? How does it integrate with existing infrastructure? Where does the data reside? And of course, these are important questions because working through the answers helps ensure a smooth deployment.

But, we have one question that we like to ask potential customers that doesn’t usually come up all by itself: What is the purpose of this new community? Very frequently the answer to this question is “We want our members to be able to interact with one another” or “We want to create more engagement with our members.” While these are laudable goals, they are unlikely to be sufficient to ensure the successful initiation and growth of an online community.

For an association community to succeed, you need to understand what your members need and how an online community will address those needs. It is unlikely that your members will see the association’s online community as a good place to discuss family events, or sports teams, or hobbies, etc. Those types of discussions are much more suited to services such as Facebook or Twitter.

But your members do face challenges every day in their professional lives and they will flock to a site that helps them succeed in the face of those challenges. But who has those answers?  Somewhat paradoxically, it’s your members! Many of them have faced the same challenges and their experiences are the secret ingredient that will make the community compelling.

Of course, its not enough to simply bring these people together and hope that information will be exchanged. You need to understand in very concrete terms the sort of problems that your members face. You need to document these for the community and get feedback on what you might have missed. You need to seek out those members who have relevant experience and encourage them to contribute their knowledge. You need to seek out blogs and reference materials that address these same issues and make the community aware of them.

In the end, you will have your members interacting with one another and they will be more engaged. But that’s not the purpose of the community, it’s the result of having a community.