Having extensively researched the purpose and role of community management for my Information Systems Management MSc dissertation, I read with interest the recent Community Roundtable State of Community Management 2014 report. This highlighted the importance of community management and it’s impact on business success, while raising concerns regarding the number of communities that still don’t have any dedicated community management resources.

And I can confirm this through our work with clients at Betterworking, where we often come across businesses embarking on social business transformation initiatives without having considered the role of enterprise community management within their strategy and programme.

So in this post I’ll try to set out why community management is a leadership role that extends beyond a set of tactical, day-to-day responsibilities, and identify the unique characteristics of good community managers that make them suitable for leading social business transformation in the modern workplace.

What causes failed social business efforts?

To understand the impact of community management on social business transformation initiatives one first needs to take a closer look at the reasons why such initiatives fail.

The first factor, according to Gartner, is inadequate leadership and an overemphasis on technology, which prevent social business efforts from achieving the intended benefits. Linked to that comes a lack of purpose which is, according to Gartner, the primary reason for failure of social collaboration initiatives.

As Vineet Nayar rightfully points out in his recent HBR article, purpose is collaboration’s most unacknowledged determinant in today’s business world. Companies and executives are often spending endless amounts of resources on technology and training trying to foster collaboration in the business, without having properly defined the problems these initiatives are intended to solve.

And to me that is crucial for inspiring people to join in and help towards making the vision of a better workplace a reality. Social business transformation equals cultural transformation, and hence people need a clear definition of goals and an overarching purpose so they can see how their participation in new ways of working will benefit a cause much larger than that of any individual: the greater good of the community.

Why leadership matters

Convincing people of what the greater good is all about and introducing them to the concept of working as part of an online community is not an easy thing to do, however.

As Greg Satell rightfully notes in his recent HBR article, to get people to do what you want, they also have to want what you want – otherwise change will not be sustainable. You need leadership to inspire and empower people to make change happen – as opposed to management which compels action on the basis of authority but does little to inspire belief in people’s minds.

Furthermore, given that cultural transformation is directly related to behavioural change, I’d also argue that you need an engaged workforce in place to facilitate that change, and there’s a clear leadership dimension to this. Through their actions, leaders help employees align their personal motives and aspirations with the overall goals of the business, essentially generating a strong link between the people and the organisation which can then be used as a basis to ground further behavioural shifts upon.

So how are organisations supposed to create an engaged workforce – and use that to fuel cultural transformation facilitated by the use of social and collaborative technologies in the workplace? Because to me that’s what social business is all about.

The answer is that someone needs to somehow bridge the leadership gap between executives and their often disengaged employees, and succeed in bringing everyone, regardless of their title or position, on the same team with a common purpose of achieving great things together.

And that’s exactly where community managers come into play.

The characteristics that make Community Managers good leaders

Through my research on community management I discovered that the development of powerful online communities supported by the use of social and collaborative technologies in the workplace requires strong leadership commitment, and that often emerges in the form of community managers.

Coming from a wide range of professional backgrounds including marketing, technology, business and HR, community managers are the emergent leaders in organisations embarking on their social business transformation journeys. These individuals take on the tactical and strategic responsibilities involved in growing and supporting a tech-enabled online community that will eventually change the way people do work, and they do so because they share some important leadership characteristics that make them suitable for driving change:

First, they have a strong passion for making work a better place, and thus attempt to go against work stereotypes by creating a positive environment that opens up work and makes it more human. My respondent from the banking sector commented on the role of community management:

I like the fact that we are opening up work and making it more human. Normally when you see policy document you just see policy document… We’ve got some person behind but the thought process behind it doesn’t show that person is a carrying mother, or that person likes to cycle, or that person went on holidays two weeks before the written document, so you don’t see the human side… It’s not an organisation… an organisation is made up of people.

Second, they have a strong belief in the power of enterprise social and collaborative technologies to help people break free from their job descriptions, learn much more about their colleagues and their organisation as a whole, expand their network and connect with others both inside and outside the organisation, and ultimately improve their work. My respondent from the marine sector commented on the benefits of using an enterprise social network across the business:

I’ve learned a lot from Yammer… I’ve learned a lot about the company, I’ve learned a lot about my colleagues, I feel much more connected to people than I did two years ago. I think it’s taken me to a whole different level of understanding what makes a good organisation, and what makes an organisation work and be prepared for the future.

Third, they gain motivation from helping others bring their own passions to life and becoming successful, as well as a sense of achievement from enabling people to release themselves from the old fashioned way of working and find pleasure in their work. My respondent from the banking sector explained:

What I enjoy the most about my job, is the fact that people might be depressed in their current role, either because of the location, or because of the type of work… but in blogging, in getting on Jive and sharing expertise, they are able to find a new job, make a new role for themselves, build up a new brand for themselves, and also gather support from others!

Fourth, they share a common vision of making work a better place, and they are committed to helping others break free from the traditional hierarchies and silos and share a feeling of community. My respondent from the media sector remarked:

My goal is to really make the corporation feel more like a community… Let’s get rid of all the hierarchy, let’s get rid of all the silos, let’s try to move some of those politics out of the way, and let’s just be passionate people trying to do great work and deliver the best solution possible for our customers. If everyone could come to work and that could be our sole focus, we could do amazing things…

Last but not least, they share a clear understanding of social business initiatives and their impact on driving actual business results, combined with an advanced social skillset that enables them to engage employees and help them connect with others, build relationships and start working out loud.

For all the above reasons, community managers are able to give people a sense of purpose for changing the way they work, and then lead them in making the vision of a better workplace a reality.

Community Management is a journey worth investing in

Community management is a journey – and therefore the needs of a particular community not only depend on the corresponding organisational context but also continue to evolve as the community progresses throughout its various stages of maturity. That is why the community management role commonly begins with tactical responsibilities but gradually extends to involve more strategic aspects as the community matures.

However, no matter what stage a business is at on its journey towards better ways of working – whether it’s defining the vision of the online community, launching and supporting the adoption of a social business platform, or embedding new behaviours across the organisation – the leadership factor will always be important for success. And that means investment in community management is a ‘must have’, not a ‘could have’.

Think of social business as an ocean trip in pursuit of new worlds: would you sail across an ocean without a captain on board?

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