Friday, November 05, 2010

Virtual Villages: Cultivating a Shared Practice Community

I am an absolute fan of Tom Kuhlmann and I can't resist the opportunity to participate in his session about Virtual Villages: Cultivating a Shared Practice Community. Tom really knows about this stuff, given the immense success of the Articulate Community. If there's one person you can learn about this from, it's Tom and of course his team. The Articulate community is a pretty cool place -- it doesn't have the snarkiness. You go for help and you get help immediately. There's heaps of content out there and it's one of the most useful places to learn. The cool thing is that people aren't rude to you and there aren't draconian rules.

What's a community
Community is the place where people share what they know and learn from each other. There are perhaps 150000 registered users on the group. If you take the spammers out of the community and the lurkers and you have 80,000-100,000 active users. You have lots of active users, but Tom's point is that numbers doing make a community, because 80,000 people doesn't mean that 80,000 people are sharing, sometimes it's only a small percentage. 

How does a community work?
The community is a place where people want to learn and they want to get to an expert who can help them learn. Tom started to engage with the Articulate community for his research project and started to contribute on it with no strings attached. He gave himself of being the expert who wants to find people who want to learn. Tom learnt a lot about the mechanism of the community process from this experience and from his research. When Tom joined Articulate, he was looking for people who are really passionate about helping people - David Anderson and Jeanette Brooks are folks who really dedicate their work lives in helping people. They are really special people. So a community is a place where:
a) someone wants to learn something;
b) someone is willing to help

The important thing here is that you don't make draconian rules, and you do the best you can to give away your work. Proprietary stuff makes it difficult for people to share. So while the community is all about building expertise, the new learners feel attracted to the community by their expertise. The Articulate community has a reputation model where they have MVPs -- honouring people's contribution to the community. This recognition often makes great contributors to become obligated to contribute and drives greater contributions from them.The key to a community however is that you want to ensure that while you promote the experts, you also make it easy for the new guys and avoid an elitist mentality. Tom gets a lot of traffic because the Articulate community makes communication and sharing easy using the technology they have available.

Technology is an enabler, but remember communities are all about people. Communities aren't all the same. A Volkswagen community is going to be different from a church community which is different from a software development community. The difference means that we need to structure every community differently. The truth about communities and this is a rough estimate:
  • 95% just want quick tips and tricks
  • 5% are conversing and active
If the 5% don't exist, the 95% don't appear to get the help. OTOH if the 95% aren't around, then the 5% who want to belong don't have a reason to be there.

Making your Community Work

Tom is now telling us about a few tradeoffs you may need to make when structuring your community:
  • High Fidelity/ High Convenience: Sometimes you may not have the coolest community but you give people a huge amount of convenience in finding stuff. OTOH, you may actually go for a high-fidelity and quality of communication to go for a little less convenience. Remember this is a balance not always just a choice.
  • Social connection/ Pragmatic Connection: How are people engaging? Are they engaging for the fact that they want social connections? Or are the out there because they want to be able to get most use out of the community
  • Community Experience/ Practical Help: People become part of communities often to belong and feel part of a sense of worth. On the other hand people other people are looking for a quick set of tips
Remember the cheap disposable phone does similar things to a status symbol phone. The audiences they meet are different though. My mother wouldn't care about an iPhone, but I care about it heaps. Remember that a community is an organic process. Think of your community as a tree -- your experts are the root and the others are the fruit. You want the fruit, but you won't have it if you don't tend to the roots. So whatever you can do to make your experts get more and more involved, will help you build a better, stronger community. Your experts will build the engine that brings other people in.

Remember that there's an overwhelming amount of information out there. You need community management and that has two clear roles:
  • For people who need quick, practical help, you need someone who is curating interesting information and brings interesting information to the surface.
  • For people who wish to belong, you need someone who is a connector and keeping the experts interested.
"You can't make people love you. You can only love them yourself!" - Tom Kuhlmann

People don't care about Articulate. All they care about is getting their jobs done. The community is not about Articulate -- so the team doesn't sell the tool on the forums. It just helps them get stuff done. On your companies community of practice, you can do this same thing by finding out what they care about and focus on that rather than focus on what you want to do. Don't focus your community of practice on the cool aid - focus on real work that people care about. See how you can help someone's team be more than the team that they have available to them. The community needs to make people successful.

To measure your community's success, think of what your fruit is:
  • is it the number of people?
  • is it the number of experts on it?
  • is it the amount of content you have?
  • is it the number of conversations you have?
Do be mindful that you avoid cliques, negative commentary, erratic norms and forcible community building. Think of how you'll grow as your community gets bigger. Create a way for people to get what they need. How can you share your expertise. BTW, Tom mentions WebJunction as an example of thriving community that you can also learn from.


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