Effectively managing communities is of great importance for many innovation initiatives. Generating ideas internally and externally, sharing knowledge, and collaboration are important drivers for innovation. Success greatly depends on the effectiveness of managing the groups involved; “communities”. Hence, understanding community management will increase chances of success for innovation initiatives.
In innovation projects for our clients we have helped to start and maintain several communities to foster innovation within the organization. This article describes our experiences on managing these communities.
To create a successful community, two essential aspects are needed: Critical mass and a high participation rate. To stimulate these aspects active community management should be implemented in the organization. Community management is defined as the functional control of systems by communities or their representatives (Definition of Wikipedia: Community management). In the following sections a list of activities is presented to contribute to the success of a community.
Create critical mass
The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users (metcalfe’s law). So it is vital to create a critical mass for your community once you are past the pilot phase. H. Kauppinen and V. Rissanen wrote an article on the five best methods for attracting new users in communities (in order of importance):
- Word of mouth
- Chat services
- Network visibility
- Public visibility
- Targeted events
Users can also be attracted by group conformity. Goal clarity, group attractiveness, and previous successes can contribute to group conformity and consequently attract new users. The clearer the group goals, the more attractive the group will be. Whereas group attractiveness bestows an element of power on the group. Finally, if previous successes are existent, they should be communicated clearly. These three points will contribute to attracting new users.
If the initial community is too small to support itself the community manager needs to produce the required activity by posting interesting content, getting senior management involved, find interesting discussion subjects, and actively pursue users to become active. It is our experience that the first year to two years are plain hard work to successfully get the community going.
Users develop perceived critical mass through interaction with others. Therefore events can be organized to create interaction between (potential) community members. Offline events like workshops, meetings or brainstorm sessions suit this purpose perfectly. But also small meet-ups, like informal receptions, contribute to create perceived critical mass.
Stimulate participation rate
Various activities can be employed to stimulate the participation rate of community members. First of all, several studies have shown that behavior intention is affected directly by subjective norm when usage is mandatory and experience is in the early stages. So commitment is needed from high-level management to participate in internal communities, especially in the early stages of the project.
From experience with several of our clients we can only stress the importance of high-level management participation. In the innovation community from one of our clients, a large Dutch insurer, a ‘normal’ forum post attracts 50 views and 3 reactions. Whereas, a forum post by a high-level manager yields at least 300 views and 25 reactions.
For internal communities theme activities can be organized periodically to foster interaction among community members so that relationships can be established. These relationships increase the attachment of members to the community. To further improve the sense of belonging or attachment to both internal and external communities, boundaries should be put in place, a common symbol system can be introduced and frequent (high quality) interaction should be organized.
Since the pursuit of power or fame can also stimulate the participation rate of community members, the status of members should be connected to the level of participation. The willingness to share knowledge with colleagues (in internal communities) can be improved by rewarding contribution.
Active participation (defined as posting messages in a virtual community) can be stimulated in several ways:
- Online interaction should be stimulated, for example by implementing a forum;
- Ensure that people view themselves as ‘belonging’ to the community;
- People like to help, support and assist other members in a community, so enable them to do so and stimulate this;
- Enable members to interact with each other and to create a profile;
- To stimulate trust users should use real names and photos in their profiles. Offline events also create trust.
Before you start your innovation community
To overcome any resistance to change internally, a kick-off meeting can be organized. Preferably a high-level manager makes an introduction speech in this kick-off meeting to communicate the importance of the community to the organization.
For the next step, the start-up phase, a pilot group needs to be selected that will boost initial activity and create word-of-mouth. It is essential that this pilot group creates perceived critical mass. Which, as stated before follows from activity and interaction in the community. During the whole course of the project, a dedicated community manager is needed to keep the community in motion.
Critical in every innovation community is that the organization formulates the goals they want to achieve with the community upfront. Constraints must also be defined and tackled if possible before the start of the project. For example the amount of time employees have available to spend on community activities is a constraint, as we have seen with our clients. Time for these activities should be made available. Furthermore, the organization should realize upfront that it takes time to create a successful community. As stated before, it is our experience that it takes up to two years to get the community on track successfully.