Originally published June 30, 2014

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This article defines and describes 10 principles for successful communities. It is based on my experience in creating, leading, and managing communities and communities programs, both inside and outside of organizations.

Overview

Communities are groups of people who, for a specific subject, share a specialty, role, passion, interest, concern, or a set of problems. Community members deepen their understanding of the subject by interacting on an ongoing basis, asking and answering questions, sharing information, reusing good ideas, solving problems for one another, and developing new and better ways of doing things.

People join communities in order to:

  1. Share new ideas, lessons learned, proven practices, insights, and practical suggestions.
  2. Innovate through brainstorming, building on each other’s ideas, and keeping informed on emerging developments.
  3. Reuse solutions through asking and answering questions, applying shared insights, and retrieving posted material.
  4. Collaborate through threaded discussions, conversations, and interactions.
  5. Learn from other members of the community; from invited guest speakers about successes, failures, case studies, and new trends; and through mentoring.

The 10 Principles

  1. Communities should be independent of organization structure; they are based on what members want to interact on.
  2. Communities are different from teams; they are based on topics, not on assignments.
  3. Communities are not sites, team spaces, blogs or wikis; they are people who choose to interact.
  4. Community leadership and membership should be voluntary; you can suggest that people join, but should not force them to.
  5. Communities should span boundaries; they should cross functions, organizations, and geographic locations.
  6. Minimize redundancy in communities; before creating a new one, check if an existing community already addresses the topic.
  7. Communities need a critical mass of members; take steps to build membership.
  8. Communities should start with as broad a scope as is reasonable; separate communities can be spun off if warranted.
  9. Communities need to be actively nurtured; community leaders need to create, build, and sustain communities.
  10. Communities can be created, led, and supported using TARGETs: Types, Activities, Requirements, Goals, Expectations, Tools.

Details on the 10 Principles

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1. Communities should be independent of organization structure. They are based on what members want to interact on.

Some organizations try to align communities to the organization structure. They try to control communities from the top and assign topics, leaders, and membership based on business unit, function, geography, client, market offering, or initiative.

Communities should be based on topics which use easily-recognized terminology, not on organization structure. Communities should be organized around industry-standard, universal topics with which members can identify in their specialties and roles.

Organizations are best served by providing informational sites based on organization structure or internal terminology. These sites are primarily to provide news and content for members of the organization. Communities are best served by providing collaborative capabilities, such as threaded discussion boards and meetings.

2. Communities are different from teams. They are based on topics, not on assignments.

Teams include the following types:

Communities form around people who share a common specialty or interest. Teams share some characteristics, but they are not self-forming. Communities exist to help their members better do their jobs and to deepen their skills and expertise. Teams exist to get work done for the organization.

This table compares and contrasts communities, organizational sites, and teams:

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3. Communities are not sites, team spaces, blogs or wikis. They are people who choose to interact.

Community sites are different from team sites, collaborative team spaces, organizational intranet sites, and standalone blogs and wikis. Community sites may use collaboration spaces, blogs, and wikis, but these tools are merely supporting the members, not defining them.

Communities are not the same as social networks, readers of the same blog, or editors of the same wiki page. Such groups of connected people lack some of the fundamental requirements for communities (see section 10).

Communities are made up of people and are supported by processes and technology. You can have a community with no technology at all, but most communities are well-served by using the SCENT tools — Site, Calendar, Events, News, Threads (see section 10).

4. Community leadership and membership should be voluntary. You can suggest that people join, but should not force them to.

Community leaders need to volunteer, not be assigned. Members need to join voluntarily, not be assigned without their permission. People want to exercise their own discretion on which communities to join, whether or not to join, and when to join. They will resent being subscribed by someone else and will resist attempts to make them do something they did not choose to do.

The passion of the leaders and members for the topic of the community is what sustains it. When people are told to lead or join a community and they lack the desire to do so, the community is unlikely to hold events, conduct stimulating discussions, or maintain interest of the members. To entice members to join communities, the leaders should make membership appealing. Create communities for which potential members want to be included in discussions, meetings, and other interactions — make it so they don’t want to miss out on what is going on.

Leaders need to meet the SHAPE expectations and members need to perform the SPACE activities (see section 10). Both are more likely to happen if voluntarily agreed to.

5. Communities should span boundaries. They should cross functions, organizations, and geographic locations.

Communities should generally be open to any person aligned with the defined purpose of the community. By transcending organizational structures and boundaries, communities take advantage of diverse experiences, perspectives, and talents.

Those who wish to start a community frequently assert that it is just for one business unit, location, language, or role. For example, a product-focused community that is just for technical people, not sales or marketing people. There may be discussions which are of greater interest to the technical people, but there are also customer problems which the sales people may encounter which may be solved by the technical people. Or there may be technical discussions which can help the marketing people become more knowledgeable.

Another example is a community which is set up in one country and wants to limit membership to that country. This would deny the possibility of people from other countries learning from or contributing to the community. In general, keeping out people who could benefit from membership and offer help to those already in the community hurts both groups.

When I launched the SIKM Leaders Community in 2005, it was intended for KM leaders at consulting and systems integration firms, hence the title of SIKM. It soon became apparent that there was nothing being discussed that could not be of benefit to any KM practitioner, and so the scope was broadened to include anyone who is part of a knowledge management initiative. The benefits of being more inclusive have been many, including a wider range of presenters on the monthly calls, participants in the online discussions, experiences, and perspectives.

6. Minimize redundancy in communities. Before creating a new one, check if an existing community already addresses the topic.

Some people believe that all social media should be offered on a self-serve basis and that anyone should be able to create a new community of practice. Unlike team sites, collaborative team spaces, blogs, wikis, and other social media, the creation of new communities should be reviewed by a coordinating group.

Reviewing requests for new communities has these benefits:

  1. Redundant communities can be prevented.
  2. A central directory of communities can be maintained, helping potential members find the right ones to join.
  3. By keeping the number of communities to a reasonable minimum, a long and confusing list for users to choose from is avoided.
  4. Silos which isolate people who could benefit from being connected are avoided.
  5. Critical mass is achieved, helping to ensure that each community succeeds and takes advantage of scale (see section 7).

When I took over the HP KM program, there was a very long and bewildering list of communities, most of which were inactive. Potential members could not easily determine which communities were alive and which were dead, and as a result, didn’t join any. By deleting the dead ones, creating a streamlined list, and reviewing requests for new ones, the communities program completely turned around and took off.

Most requests for new communities which address a topic already covered by an existing one should be responded to by suggesting that the requester become a co-leader of the existing one. This harnesses the requester’s enthusiasm, injects new energy into the existing community, and prevents the fragmentation of members into isolated silos.

7. Communities need a critical mass of members. Take steps to build membership.

A community usually needs at least 100 members, with 200 being a better target. Why should there be at least 100 people? In a typical community, 10% or fewer of the members will tend to post, ask questions, present, etc. If a community has only 10 members, that means that only one person will be doing most of the activity. In a community of 100, you can expect around 10 people to be very active, and that is probably the minimum number for success. As the community grows in size, it becomes more likely that experts belong, that questions will be answered, and that a variety of topics will be discussed.

The greater the number of members in a community, the greater the potential benefit. A community benefits from a broad range of perspectives. If it has only a small number of like-minded members, it is unlikely that innovative ideas, lively debates, and breakthrough thinking will result.

The rule of thumb is that 10% of the members will participate at all, and only 1% will regularly be active in discussions and presentations. In small communities, 1% can be rounded to zero. If only a handful of people speak up, that will not usually sustain momentum.

The larger the membership, the more likely that any question posed to the community will be answered. By including as much of the available expertise as possible in the community, its ability to respond increases accordingly.

Increasing the size of a community yields more potential speakers at community events and conference calls. It results in greater leverage, since for the same effort, more people realize the benefits. And it helps more people to become comfortable in the community model, which can lead them to join other communities, recruit new members, and launch related communities of interest.

8. Communities should start with as broad a scope as is reasonable. Separate communities can be spun off if warranted.

Try to avoid parochialism. Local organizations tend to think of creating local communities and sharing within them, but are reluctant to expand to a global community. Encourage communities to be broader and to include other countries, other parts of the organization, customers, partners, and former employees. This may be hard to sell, even though wider membership will probably make the communities more successful by supplying more answers to questions, additional perspectives, and more varied experience.

Rules of Thumb

  1. Initially, the broadest possible approach to a new community should be supported, and narrowing either by geography or function should be discouraged.
  2. Local chapters can be created as subsets of larger communities.
  3. Start with the broadest feasible topics, and narrow down as needed.
  4. Spin off narrower sub-topics only when a high volume of discussion or communication makes it necessary.
  5. Suggest that overlapping communities with similar topics be combined, either directly or with one as a subset of the other.

Challenge those with a niche topic to prove that it warrants its own community:

  1. Start as part of a broader community, play an active role in leading discussions and events, and prove a high level of interest.
  2. If the volume of activity becomes high, spin off a separate community.
  3. If the volume of activity does not become high, remain in the community until it does.

9. Communities need to be actively nurtured. Community leaders need to create, build, and sustain communities.

The first thing to do is to decide what topic you wish to address in a community. Pick a compelling topic that will be of interest to many people in your organization. The potential members must be passionate about the subject for collaboration, and it must be relevant to their work.

You need a committed leader for the community. Volunteer to be the community leader, or identify someone else with the right attributes. The community leader should know the subject, have energy for stimulating collaboration, have sufficient time to devote to leadership, and then regularly spend time meeting the SHAPE goals — Schedule, Host, Answer, Post, Expand (see section 10).

If communities already exist in your organization, then get the answers to these questions:

  1. Is your topic already covered as part of another community? If so, offer to help the leader of that community.
  2. Is there an existing community that is focused on a related topic? If so, approach its leader about expanding it to include your topic.
  3. Is there an old community that is inactive but could be resurrected or migrated to form the new community? If so, ask if you can take over the leadership, or harvest the membership list to start the new one.

Try to take advantage of existing networks:

  1. Is there an existing team that could be the core of a new community? For example, is there a team whose mission aligns with the topic for the new community? If so, these can be the initial members.
  2. Is there an existing distribution list of people interested in the topic? If so, use that list to invite people to join your community.
  3. You can use Social Network Analysis to identify people who are linked but who may not be part of a formal community. Then invite them to join your community.

Once your community is established, publicize its existence to help recruit new members:

  1. Write and submit articles to existing newsletters that reach your target audience.
  2. Use existing networks to inform possible members about your community.
  3. Send a one-time broadcast message to the entire population containing your target audience.
  4. Request that links to your community be added on all relevant web sites.
  5. Offer an incentive to join, e.g., a member will be chosen at random or the 100th member will receive an iPad or equivalent gift.

Keep the community active:

  1. Implement and manage the SCENT tools — Site, Calendar, Events, News, Threads (see section 10).
  2. Perform the SHAPE tasks — Schedule, Host, Answer, Post, Expand (see section 10).
  3. Regularly suggest to those with questions or interest in your topic that they join the community and use its tools.

Here are some suggestions for helping to develop good community leaders:

  1. Suggest to new community leaders that they join a few established communities to observe how they are led and to follow their examples.
  2. Lead a community for community leaders and encourage novice community managers to join and participate. Use this community for two main purposes: to share ideas, tips, tricks, and proven practices; and to provide a working example of a community which the members can apply to their communities. Ask the leaders of all communities to take turns presenting on community calls to show how they lead their communities, ask for advice, and share useful insights. Encourage members to post to the community threaded discussion board to ask questions, share knowledge, and practice threaded discussions.
  3. Provide recorded training, reading materials, and one-on-one coaching (upon request).
  4. Invite speakers from other organizations to tell their stories about communities to your community leaders. Often there is great interest in hearing from fresh, outside voices, so take advantage of this.
  5. Have members of the KM Program team or Communities of Practice (CoP) Program team join new communities to observe their activities and discussions. Offer positive reinforcement (i.e., praise) and helpful suggestions (not criticisms) to the leaders.

After a community has been created and developed, it must be nurtured carefully so that it doesn’t stagnate or die. Here are some practical tips for how to sustain communities.

Don’t let a few members dominate. Encourage normally passive participants when they surface with an occasional post. Invite a variety of members to speak during calls and meetings. Publicize contributions from all members.

Meet in person, either in a periodic community meeting, or as part of another meeting or training session. Colleagues who see each other regularly are more likely to ask one another for help and to trust one another enough to share documents and other content. Someone who works in the cube next another person will be likely to visit that colleague to ask for help, to bounce ideas off them, or to ask if they have a document that they can use. They are much less likely to post to a threaded discussion or to contact someone they don’t know personally. Face-to-face meetings help overcome this challenge by introducing members to one another.

Aim for a variety of speakers, topics, and activities. In community events, don’t always have a presentation. Sometimes schedule a field trip, a discussion, or a social event. Invite outside speakers who hold the attention of the audience. Introduce new topics into threaded discussions. Inject humor and levity to keep things light.

Add an ask the expert process for the community. A specific way to use threaded discussions effectively is to ensure posted questions are answered. This is a service level agreement associated with threaded discussions that guarantees that if you post a question, you will get a response within 48 hours. That response could be the answer to your question (the preferred result), or it could be that the community is working on it and they’ll get back to you later with the answer. Or in some cases, it might be that the community doesn’t think it can answer that question. But at least you’ll get an answer within a specified time and you’ll know whether you need to seek a different avenue.

Finally, some communities need to be allowed to die. If a community has failed to build its membership, no longer has active members, no longer has posts to its threaded discussion board, no longer holds events, or no longer has a viable purpose, the right thing to do is to retire it. Move on to another topic of greater relevance and currency which can attract new members who are passionate about it.

10. Communities can be created, led, and supported using TARGETs: Types, Activities, Requirements, Goals, Expectations, Tools.

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  1. Types can be used for describing communities, creating a community directory, and helping users readily navigate to the communities which interest them.
  2. Activities should be used to explain to community members what it means to be a member of a community and how they should participate.
  3. Requirements should be used to decide if a community should be created and if it is likely to succeed.
  4. Goals should be set for communities and progress against those goals should be measured and reported.
  5. Expectations should be set for community leaders to define their role and to ensure that communities are nurtured.
  6. Tools should support member interaction.

Types can be used for describing communities, creating a community directory, and helping users readily navigate to the communities which interest them. There are five categories which can be used to describe and organize communities: TRAIL — Topic, Role, Audience, Industry, Location

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  1. Topic (e.g., Enterprise Applications, Cloud Computing)
  2. Role (e.g., Project Management, Software Development)
  3. Audience (e.g., Recruits, Women)
  4. Industry (e.g., Manufacturing, Telecommunications) or Client (e.g., European Union, US Federal Government)
  5. Location (e.g., US, UK)

Activities should be used to explain to community members what it means to be a member of a community and how they should participate. There are five ways community members should participate: SPACE — Subscribe, Post, Attend, Contribute, Engage

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  1. Subscribe: Get email, RSS, or mobile notifications and regularly read a threaded discussion board
  2. Post: Start a new thread or reply in a threaded discussion board
  3. Attend: Participate in community events
  4. Contribute: Submit content to the community newsletter, blog, wiki, or site
  5. Engage: Ask a question, make a comment, or give a presentation

Requirements should be used to decide if a community should be created and if it is likely to succeed. There are five elements that communities need: SMILE — Subject, Members, Interaction, Leaders, Enthusiasm

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  1. Subject: A specialty to learn and/or collaborate about
  2. Members: People interested in the subject
  3. Interaction: Meetings, calls, and discussions
  4. Leaders: People passionate about the subject who are dedicated to creating, building, and sustaining a community
  5. Enthusiasm: Motivation to engage and spend time collaborating and/or learning about the subject

Goals should be set for communities and progress against those goals should be measured and reported. Unhealthy communities should either be nurtured back to health or retired. There are five ways to measure the success of a communities program: PATCH — Participation, Anecdotes, Tools, Coverage, Health

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1. Participation: % of target population which is a member of at least one community

2. Anecdotes: % of communities displaying the following on their sites:

3. Tools: % of communities having all five key tools (see below)

4. Coverage: % of desired topics covered by at least one community

5. Health: % of communities meeting these criteria:

Expectations should be set for community leaders to define their role and to ensure that communities are nurtured. There are five tasks for community leaders: SHAPE — Schedule, Host, Answer, Post, Expand

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  1. Schedule: Line up speakers and set up events
  2. Host: Initiate and run conference calls, webinars, and face-to-face meetings
  3. Answer: Ensure that questions in the threaded discussion board receive replies, that discussions are relevant, and that behavior is appropriate
  4. Post: Share information which is useful to the members by posting to the community site, threaded discussion board, blog, and/or newsletter
  5. Expand: Attract new members, content contributions, and threaded discussion board posts

Tools should support member interaction. There are five key tools for communities: SCENT — Site, Calendar, Events, News, Threads

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  1. Site: home page — for reaching new members and sharing information with current ones
  2. Calendar: of community events — for promoting interaction
  3. Events: meetings, conference calls, webinars — for interacting personally
  4. News: newsletter or blog — for ongoing communications and publicity
  5. Threads: threaded discussion board — for interacting virtually

Site

Calendar

Events

  1. Avoid formal organizational announcements and anything else perceived as boring by the members
  2. Host both internal and external speakers
  3. Hold a member roundtable and Q&A
  4. Introduce members to one another to build relationships
  5. Suggest to those who want to present or demo to one member or to a small group that they do so on a call instead

News

Threads

Resources

Presentations

Acknowledgements

I received very helpful comments and suggestions from Alice MacGillivray, Luis Suarez, Fred Nickols, Bruce Karney, Reed Stuedemann, Lee Romero, and Chris Riemer. I wish to thank them for their guidance.

Written by

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/

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