What makes some communities click, while others struggle to take off?

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”
Henry David Thoreau

What makes some communities click, while others struggle to take off?

All things remaining constant (tools, policies, security etc), why do some communities thrive, while others perish in their infancy? Sure, our adoption of social software at Intel has been better than satisfactory, and I have shared my insights on what I consider essential strategies for a successful implementation. However, we have our fair share of communities that struggle to take off as intended, and fall by the wayside after an enthusiastic start. And while tools, policies etc are important, it takes more wean away an entire workforce from old collaboration habits (aka closed door meetings, email) to a new paradigm.

On one hand, the market size for enterprise social software has seen rapid growth. CIOs across all industry sectors recognize the business value of social collaboration capabilities and have made significant investments in this technology. Earlier this year, McKinsey published a report that claims that there is a trillion dollars of business value waiting to be unlocked by social software. On the other hand, participation inequality and poor adoption by users are still unresolved challenges. A formula to build vibrant communities in a predictable manner has remained elusive.

Why does a technology capable of unlocking a trillion dollars in value still need to be evangelized to its users?

We took a hard look at this question in an effort to evolve a scalable model for successful communities – and that brings me back to Thoreau’s quote. In standing up to live the hard life of a community manager, I realize that to write a blog post on “3 steps to a successful community” is vain. In the absence of a magic formula, today, I share with you my observations on traits of successful communities.

1. A successful community has (at least one) steward.

The steward is usually a person that sees the big picture value of open collaboration. They understand the possibility of bigger things emerging when information is shared openly. They know that silos do not come crashing down in dramatic fashion just because a tool got implemented. But organizational silos do breach open with every email that becomes a blog post, and every closed door meeting that moves to a discussion forum.

It helps if the steward is also a person with authority. Often, this position of community leadership is assumed without formal authority. The only “must have” is that the steward be a member of the community, and not an outsider. That way, they can provide positive reinforcement for collaborative behavior (“Great post – thanks for sharing”), as well as look out for potential wins, offline (“Great idea. Why don’t you add it to our wiki so that other teams can use it?”)

2. Great communities make it worthwhile.

The challenge with social collaboration is that the point of return on investment is too far removed from the point of investment. When I want to communicate to a team, the easiest way to do it is to send an email to a mailing list. I do not care at that moment, that the contents of my email may need to be referenced 3 months later – or that someone who is not on that mailing list would benefit from the information.

Successful communities make the effort worthwhile for one another, realizing that what goodwill and information shared, comes around. They encourage contributions both online (likes, comments) and offline (formal recognition, notable mentions in team meetings). The offline recognition is particularly important, because it promotes awareness among those struggling to adopt social software

3. The most vibrant communities are open (or have critical mass)

When it comes to social communities, size does matter. As I look at our leaderboard of most active communities, most of them are open to the entire company. The ones that need to be closed for business reasons, have critical mass of membership. Regular activity within a group promotes active readership, and high response rates – and size helps to sustain the required levels of activity.

When combined with a powerful business purpose, these attributes help a community to cross the adoption chasm, and become self-sustaining.

If you manage a community within your organization, or use one to collaborate with your peers, do share your insights, or get in touch.