Community Manager musings: Four reasons coordinators of communities of practice can fail

Community manager musings is a series of occasional posts looking at the roles and skills of community managers – usually within science. 

“Gah! It’s all Greek to me!” One form of failure in building a community of practice comes from lack of domain expertise.
Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/proimos/4199675334/

Nurturing and growing a successful community of practice is a delicate balance of activities where the intention is to create a vibrant group of members interested in honing their craft in a particular domain that they share.

Communities can fail for any of a number of reasons – but in communities of practice Wenger et al., mention four key causes that are due specifically to how the community manager’s role is carried out.

  1. Time
  2. Balance between public and private spaces
  3. Pro-active networking
  4. Technical / domain knowledge

Time

“…managing a community can take anything upwards of 20% of a coordinator’s time – but ideally a minimum of 10 hours per week.”

Nurturing a community requires dedicated time each week (and a strategy!). Occasional nudges once everything else on the to do list has been completed won’t be enough. For those supporting a community of practice as an additional activity – not the sole component of their day job – it can be hard to find the consistency required for success.

As a general rule, managing a community can take anything upwards of 20% of a coordinator’s time – but ideally a minimum of 10 hours per week. If this sounds like a lot, think about how much time you might already be spending successfully nurturing your own participation in various networks each week e.g. if you maintain an active and responsive Twitter profile that’s probably taking you at least an hour a day – whether that’s spread out as a few minutes here and there over the day or you spend a half hour each morning and evening. For a community of practice, if you’re the primary person coordinating others and brokering trust, you need to add all the additional tasks such as communicating logistics, making introductions, and preparing content. It’s easy to spend 10 hours a week on this.

The right balance between public and private spaces and activities

“While programming and some enthusiasm are both useful, it’s also vital to remember that your main role is to broker trust – and that depends upon private interactions between individuals.”

If you’ve read Jane Jacobs’ book “The death and life of great American cities” you’ll be familiar with her argument that streets are the primary unit of cities and for cities to be effecctive Jacobs suggests that one of the things streets need is a clear delineation between public and private spaces.

So too with communities of practice – not everything that occurs between community members will take place on centre stage in full view of everyone else, nor should it. It can be tempting when trying to coordinate a community, especially in the early stages, to act as a visible cheerleader or schedule lots of events and activities in the hopes that everyone will enthusiastically take part. While programming and some enthusiasm are both useful, it’s also vital to remember that your main role is to broker trust – and that depends upon interactions between individuals.

Does your role balance cultivating “public” spaces where the community’s work is taking place, with paying attention to the private spaces for interactions in smaller groups – such as the conversations that happen after a meeting has wrapped up, or by the watercooler during the course of the day? As a community coordinator, are you aware of when issues arise in the backchannels that are not being surfaced in the main meetings? Or when particular individuals might benefit from an intro to one another and the opportunity to get coffee together?

Networking skills

“…if the community manager delays inviting contributions from others for too long then this may stall the formation of the community.”

I’ve blogged before about some of the tensions inherent in the traits required to be a successful community manager such as being able to do big picture strategic planning and stay on top of the details. One key trait is the ability to successfully network with others in the nascent community and feel comfortable asking them to contribute to meetings, discussions and other activities. Although it can take a while to build new relationships – and starting out by asking for something isn’t an ideal approach – if the community manager delays inviting contributions from others for too long then this may stall the formation of the community.

One possible way to avoid this pitfall is for the community manager to be someone already known to the other community members – perhaps because they’re an existing member of staff transitioning to this new role as community coordinator. Or maybe they’ve been operating in a different context with the domain and have earned legitimacy that way.

Technical / domain knowledge

“Having the cultural context about how science works and how scientists communicate plus some subject matter expertise can add a legitimacy and confidence when interacting with others.”

One of the things we’ve seen with scientific community managers is that the majority have some scientific training – and that often extends all the way to obtaining a PhD. Having the cultural context about how science works and how scientists communicate, plus some subject matter expertise, can add legitimacy and confidence when interacting with others. It also means that even when not visibly contributing to conversations, the community manager is still able to understand the details of what’s being discussed or identify others with relevant skills that may be invited to the group.

That said, some successful scientific community managers do manage without a scientific background. They may do so by deliberating adopting a learning mindset where they quickly pick up the key details about the culture of science. Or there may be additional support within their organisation e.g. a scientifically trained staff member writes and/or reviews any scientific materials while the community manager has responsibility for the overall community strategy and reporting.

 

Do you recognise any of these as challenges you’ve encountered in your own role? Are there additional challenges you’re facing as a community manager that feel related to your role in specific (rather than structural issues within your organisation)?

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