Communities on your social intranet (also called "groups", "online workspaces", "team sites", etc.) likely won't grow active and vibrant on their own. Thoughtful planning and consistent effort will likely be the keys to the engagement palace.
This post provides background on different types of online groups and offers specific tips for managing communities of practice and communities of interest on your social intranet.
The contents of this post came out of workshops we ran with one of our star clients, ACCA. ACCA, based in London, is the global body for professional accountants. This post is based on notes Sarah Moffatt (@projectmoffatt) wrote up during the workshop and published as a blog post on ACCA's own social intranet, Arthur.
What makes a good online community?
Before jumping into the nitty gritty of specific tactics, we should discuss what "good" looks like. Not surprisingly, the qualities that make an online community good are similar to those that make an in-person community successful. They include:
- A common interest
- A leader
- People! (the right ones, and good ones)
- Regular participation, contributions and catching up
- A consistent schedule
- Content that's relevant to members
This basic list shows that there is no big secret here, just some planning, consistent effort and a little passion.
4 basic types of online groups/communities
There are several common types of online groups that pop up on companies' social intranets. It's important to note the different types and the differences between them, which will dictate the kind of work needed to foster involvement.
1 - Business units or core teams: These are tight knit teams of people who work closely together every day. Members share strategic goals, have clear roles and competencies, and generally share the same manager.
2 - Project teams: Like business units, project teams work closely together, share common project goals and tend to have clear roles. However, they are less closely tied together, have disparate goals outside the project, and are more tied to their core teams and managers than the project itself.
3 - Communities of practice: These looser groups are organized around sharing and learning rather than implementation. While members share personal goals of both learning and displaying their knowledge, they don't share specific work goals or work together closely on a daily basis. These groups typically are organized around high priority business topics and include people in similar roles but in different locations, working on different projects.
4 - Communities of interest: This is the most lightweight type of group, though also potentially the most engaging. It's like a community of practice, but instead of being tied to business roles is more open. There are no shared work goals, but people feel drawn to these groups by their own personal passions. These groups can be work-related or on fun and personal topics.
4 common challenges for employee communities
As you can see, there are strong differences between focused business unit and project groups online and the more open communities of practice and interest. These differences translate into some very specific challenges for communities.
1 - Usefulness and immediacy: Because communities are optional and often about learning more than immediate ouputs they can struggle to gather momentum.
2 - Competing priorities: If your boss is hounding you to finish a report, how will you find time to join a discussion that doesn't solve such an immediate and tangible problem?
3 - Mapping individual interest to the 'group' interest: Bringing people together around a shared area of practice or interest assumes a lot of similarities. But different motivations, levels of expertise, and needs for applying knowledge can make communities impersonal and hard to relate to.
4 - Hierachy or unclear expectations around it: In business units hierarchies are clear, but in communities people may not know what level different members sit at or how that hierarchy should influence their words and actions.
It's important to recognize these challenges and have your eyes wide open when launching employee communities. But don't let these road bumps take you off course; online communities can provide rich soil for improved performance through 1) rapid learning, 2) the spread of good ideas and innovation, and 3) increasing employees' connections with each other and satisfaction on the job.
15 tactics to build active, healthy communities
So, considering the unique characteristics of online communities and the specific challenges they engender, what can you do to help an online community on your social intranet come alive?
These 15 tips may not cover every aspect of intranet community management, but they sure will help:
- Have a person who is responsible for it (i.e a "community manager"): This person sets the tone, and is like the host of a party who makes people feel comfortable and who uses her own social captial to get keep the group lively. (See tips on engaging your community managers.)
- Reach out proactively to bring in members: Who are the people who should be involved and who do you want as members? Reach out to them actively and individually, both online and offline.
- Foster bilateral offline relationships: Don't think that all your interaction with community members has to take place online. Make sure to supplement those efforts with more direct one-on-one relationships. This builds tremendous social capital that will pay you back in the online community.
- Ask members about their needs: Ask questions and listen to community members. What do they need to find? What would help them do their daily jobs?
- Offer new members a simple first action: Ask new joiners to take a small, easy action upon entering the community. Have a "say hello" section or ask them to favorite the community's forum section. A simple first step makes the second, third, and all future steps come more easily.
- Provide training and active help: Offer training and help to new members to help people get comfortable with the online space and technology. People will never get involved if they are afraid to press the buttons.
- Set the tone proactively: People often hesitate to get involved if they don't know how formal or informal, serious or jovial, honest or reserved the community expects participants to be. The community manager and any senior group members should go out of their way to participate and demonstrate the proper tone for the group.
- Build a mini content plan: For at least the first couple of months create a top-level plan of what content to post, why, when and by whom.
- Be regular and consistent with posts and updates: It is better to post every Friday than post for six days on the trot and then stop. The rhythm and consistency demonstrate reliability to members.
- Keep conversations and material up-to-date: Try going to a party that's dead — not many people, nobody active and having fun. That's what an out-of-date online community is like.
- Find something interesting to catch member's attention: Go out of your way to think up a useful or fascinating tidbit that people will want to see. Example: Every week a new statistic related to the topic of the community.
- Highlight your members: Thank them for their involvement, promote their work and contributions, put them in the spotlight.
- Link to other intranet content: News and information flows into your social intranet every day. Not all the content for your online group has to come from the community itself. Bring in other news to keep the group relevant and linked in to the rest of the company.
- Include some intranet help content: Participating in an intranet community means using the intranet's functionality. So don't be afraid to post technical tips and tricks that aren't directly about the community's core topics.
- Transform interactive content into reference material: If you have a fantastic discussion thread why not make this into an instructional page or FAQ section? Sometimes organic discussions generate rich information that you can turn into evergreen reference content.
These aren't the only tips that can help you and your team build strong online communities on your social intranet. But each and every one of them is based on real-world experience and can be very handy when used in the right place and time. Good luck!
Have questions? Get in touch! We're always happy to hear from you.