Originally published February 23, 2015

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Q: Should an enterprise take steps to avoid having multiple communities or Enterprise Social Network (ESN) groups for the same topic?

A: This is an important question, with no consensus on the right answer. In the Communities Manifesto, one of the 10 principles is “Minimize redundancy in communities. Before creating a new one, check if an existing community already addresses the topic.”

Q: Shouldn’t anyone who wants to start a community or ESN group be able to do so?

A: 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 or ESN group. Unlike team sites, collaborative team spaces, blogs, wikis, and other social media, the creation of new communities and groups should be reviewed by a coordinating group, if this is possible.

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.

When I took over one 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.

Q: Why not just let a thousand flowers bloom, and rely on the survival of the fittest to sort out which communities or ESN groups should be retained?

A: The existence of multiple groups presents challenges:

  1. For members, they have to choose which group(s) to join and which ones to set email notifications for.
  2. For people wanting to post, they have to choose which group(s) to post to, and possibly have to cross-post multiple times to reach their intended audiences.
  3. The people who can answer a question or benefit from seeing shared information may not belong to the group in which it is posted.

Consolidating similar groups yields multiple benefits:

  1. Make it easier for users to find the right group to join and participate in
  2. Achieve critical mass of members and posts
  3. Avoid fragmentation and duplication of posts
  4. Share the effort of being a group admin and moderating discussion
  5. Increase the likelihood of questions receiving timely replies

Consider these questions:

  1. If someone posts in one of the overlapping groups, will it reach everyone who might benefit?
  2. If someone asks a question in one of the groups, will it receive timely and diverse answers?
  3. Are the members of each group seeing all of the conversations relevant to the group’s topic?
  4. Are posts having to be cross-posted in multiple groups, thus increasing the noise level?
  5. Would there be any harm in having discussions take place in a single group with more members?

An ESN I manage once had a dozen different groups all focused on different aspects of social media. None of these groups had more than 100 members, and none were successful. After combining them into a single group for social media, the combined group became more active than any of the original groups, and steadily grew in membership to where it now has over 3,600 members. It’s now easy to figure out which group focuses on social media, so people regularly join the group and post in it. Before, they might have looked at all of the competing groups, thrown up their hands, and given up without joining any of them or posting at all.

Q: Won’t controlling group creation stifle enthusiasm and creativity?

A: Often, the initial enthusiasm for a new community or group does not last once it has been created. Communities are often started with the best of intentions, high hopes, and great expectations, only to founder almost immediately. Here are some typical scenarios I have seen:

  1. A new community is requested, but once it approved, it is never launched. No time is available to do the actual work of creating it.
  2. A new community is launched, but then there is no activity. No one is available to do the ongoing work of community leadership.
  3. A new ESN group is created. No posts are ever made to it.
  4. A new ESN group is created. There is an initial post, sometimes replied to with enthusiasm (Great to see this new group! Way to go! You rock!). Then there are no more posts.
  5. A new community is launched, or a new ESN group is created. There is activity for a short time. Then it becomes inactive.

Community leadership takes more than initial enthusiasm. It takes ongoing commitment, discipline, and dedication. This effort is often lacking, resulting in communities and groups being abandoned like ghost towns. See 10 Tips for Leading Communities.

Q: Aren’t conversations more likely to take place in smaller groups?

A: This argument is that people are more willing to hold discussions in small groups with people they know and trust, and are afraid of posting in larger groups with members they don’t know. In my experience, most small groups struggle to become active, or to remain active. See Does Size Matter in Communities? for quantitative analysis to support this observation.

Q: If there is only one large group per topic, won’t there be a lot of spamming the group with posts of interest only to a small subset of the members?

A: It is more likely that spam will result from having too many similar groups, not from having just one. I have seen people doggedly copy the same post over and over to every similar group, which is viewed as spam by those who belong to more than one of these groups. If there had been only one group for the topic, then the post would have been posted only once. If most group posts in a small group are shared from other groups, or things that should have been posted in a larger group, then use the larger group instead, and delete the smaller one.

The problem with most groups is not too much activity. It is a lack of activity.

  1. Few, if any, groups suffer from having too many posts. Most suffer from the opposite: too few posts.
  2. Even the most active groups usually have no more than a few posts a day. It’s easy for any group member to quickly scan all such posts, either online or in email notifications, to see if they are of interest. If not, they can be quickly ignored or deleted.
  3. It’s hard to tell in advance which posts will be of interest to which group members. As long as they have some interest in the broad subject covered by the group, there is little harm in them seeing posts over the full range of relevant subjects.
  4. If a group does end up having too many posts on one niche subject, it is easy to spin off a separate group for that subject.
  5. Topics or hashtags can be used to differentiate posts within a group.

Q: How many communities or groups should an enterprise have?

A: Exactly one for each topic of importance to the organization and to its people.

An ESN should have a smaller number of groups, each with a larger number of members. A single, large group for each important topic, used for collaborating across all organizations and geographies, is more effective than having a lots of separate small groups for each possible subset of the topic.

The reasons for this include:

  1. Reaching critical mass (hundreds, preferably thousands, of members) for any group is the best way to keep a group active and continue to attract more members.
  2. Online communities work best when they cross geographic and organizational boundaries to facilitate virtual, asynchronous collaboration. Local communities work best when they meet in person, perform local actions, or participate in physical activities.
  3. Keeping things simple is best for both those leading the groups and those joining the groups. If there is just one group to join, that makes it easier for leaders to recommend it, and for potential members to figure out which group to join and post in.

Q: Why do the large groups keep getting bigger?

A: There are multiple reasons, including:

  1. There is only one main group for the topic, so it is easy to decide which one to join.
  2. When prospective members see that there are already a lot of members and posts, they figure that the group is worth joining and will be valuable to them.
  3. There are active leaders of each group making sure that questions are answered, useful content is shared, and discussions taking place elsewhere get redirected into the group.

Q: Are there any types of groups which are unlikely to succeed?

A: Yes, here are examples of groups which are unsuccessful when too granular:

  1. Annual events: Instead of having a separate group for each year and location, a single group for all posts for all years and from all locations would allow broader sharing, greater likelihood of questions being answered, and increased value for all members.
  2. Affinity groups such as alumni groups: With a few exceptions, most alumni groups for specific colleges and universities will have few members and posts. If instead of all of these individual groups, there was a single group for all alumni program participants, they could all share, ask, find, answer, recognize, inform, and suggest more effectively. And they could create separate topics for each school if people want to follow just those posts, e.g., a topic called Alumni-State for posts directed at State University alums.
  3. Niche topics: These are unlikely to ever have much activity, and they all run the risk of having someone post a question, receive no answer, and decide as a result that the ESN doesn’t work. But if they had posted their question in a large, active group, they would most likely have had a much more positive experience.

Q: How can geographic or functional communities be supported?

A: Narrowing topics by geography or other organizational restrictions should be discouraged. Local chapters can be created as subsets of larger communities.

Geography-based communities which meet locally, and online communities which collaborate virtually, complement each other nicely. An example of two external communities which complement each other are the SIKM Leaders Community (global, online discussions and monthly conference calls) and the SIKM Boston Community (local, monthly in-person meetings). The global community does not meet in person, and the local community does not have online virtual discussions. People can join both and not have to participate in multiple discussion boards.

Online geographic groups can be useful to enable a country to have discussions about that country and its local activities and events, possibly in a local language. Keys to success for country groups are having the right level of granularity (e.g., a country as opposed to a city), campaigns to increase membership, sticking to discussions specific to that country (and not better discussed in other groups), and active and regular country leadership participation.

Q: How do you manage to keep only one community for each subject?

A: Here are ways to do this:

  1. Require that communities must be reviewed and approved before being created, and then enforce the rule that there is only one community per important topic.
  2. Regularly review existing communities to ensure that they are still at the right level of focus (not too broad, not too narrow), are still active, and have leaders who are regularly leading them.
  3. Merge groups which overlap.

Before approving a new community, require that this question be answered by the requester: Is there an existing community which covers the topic or a related one?

  • If so, offer to become a co-leader of that community, rather than creating a new one. Add a tab, section, or link to a sub-page on that community’s site (e.g., sub-topic, local chapter, etc.) and share collaboration tools such as an ESN group.
  • If not, ask the other four questions listed in 5 questions to answer before starting a new community.

Q: Do you have rules about who can set up a new community?

A: Anyone should be able to request a community. You may want to require an executive sponsor with a clearly-defined business purpose for any business-related community. For non-business-related communities (communities of interest), anyone should be able to request one. Communities may be rejected due to the inappropriateness of the topic, overlap with an existing group, or narrowness of the topic.

Q: Can anyone lead a community?

A: Anyone should be able to lead a community, provided they agree to regularly perform the following activities:

  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 discussion board, blog, and newsletter
  5. Expand: attract new members and content contributions

Q: What about allowing communities for topics which are similar, but not exactly the same?

A: Before creating a new group, search for an existing one that covers, or could cover, the desired subject. Look in community directories and group lists, and type your proposed group name into the search box, search, and look at the search results for communities or groups. If one exists with a similar name and/or description, join that group and offer to become a group admin instead of creating a new one. If the subject is not quite right, suggest that the group be renamed or redefined to include the desired subject.

Q: How about setting up sub-communities rather than creating new communities?

A: To accommodate sub-categories within a group, members can add topics to differentiate their posts. For example, within a knowledge management group, topics such as Communities, Taxonomy, and Collaboration can be used. Or to designate geographic subsets of a global group, members can use GroupName1-CityA, GroupName2-CountryB, GroupName3-RegionC, etc. when posting in the global group about a topic of local interest. For those who are only interested in seeing such posts, they can elect to follow that topic rather than joining the group.

Q: Can anything be done about existing communities and ESN groups which overlap and cover similar subject matter?

A: Yes, the following steps can be taken:

  1. Review existing communities and groups looking for overlap. Then contact the community leaders/group admins to suggest combining them.
  2. If you find inactive groups or groups with no current admin, take steps to make them active, assign a new admin, or delete if no longer needed.
  3. If you can’t control new group creation in your ESN, review all new groups as they are created or in a weekly new group report. Then contact the creators to suggest ones which can be deleted.
  4. Regularly search for key topics, and see what groups have been created or renamed so that combinations can be suggested.
  5. Regularly promote this message to all community leaders and group admins: If someone else approaches you about becoming an admin for your group, renaming it or redefining it, or deleting it, give it serious consideration. Talk to them, and others with similar groups, about the options. And then make a decision which supports open, global, cross-functional sharing and collaboration.

Also see How to govern enterprise social network groups.

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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