Communities on your intranet (sometimes called groups, online workspaces, or team sites) don’t grow active and vibrant on their own. They require strategic planning and consistent effort.
But before we get into how to build these communities, let’s first look at what makes a good community, the types of communities, and some challenges with online communities.
What makes a good online community?
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.
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4 basic types of online groups/communities
There are several common types of online groups that pop up on 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.
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.
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.
Communities of practice
Communities of practice (CoP) are groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis. They operate as learning or action systems where members connect to share ideas, solve problems, set standards, build tools, and develop relevant relationships. 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.
Communities of practice are limited to workplaces. They can be found in schools and universities, in the workplace, at church, and even in the home. You likely already belong to one, even if you don’t know it or didn’t label it as such. Examples within the workplace may include a design team, or a project management team that carry their expertise over to different departments.
Communities of interest
Another type of community is a community of interest (CoI). 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 it 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.
An example in the workplace could be a group of employees who share an interest in food, and exchange nearby restaurant options. All employees have interests inside and outside of the company and want to feel connected with what’s going on around them. Allowing employee interests and hobbies to be easily discovered by others goes a long way in engaging employees and building solid trustworthy relationships.
4 common challenges for employee communities
As you can see, there are strong differences between focused business units and project groups online and the more open communities of practice and interest. These differences translate into some very specific challenges for communities.
Usefulness and immediacy
Because communities are optional and often about learning more than immediate outputs they can struggle to gather momentum.
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?
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.
Hierarchy 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 provide rich soil for improved performance through rapid learning, the spread of good ideas and innovation, and 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:
1. Designate 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 capital to keep the group lively. (See tips on engaging your community managers.)
2. Recruit new 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.
3. 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.
4. 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?
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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 tone for the group.
8. 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.
9. Be regular and consistent with posts and updates
It is better to post every Friday than post for six days in a row and then stop. The rhythm and consistency demonstrate reliability to members.
10. Encourage participants to invite a colleague
Online groups can be intimidating if you don’t know what is discussed, or if you feel you may not have anything to offer. Allowing your group members to invite a colleague to a meeting provides a sneak-peak into the group without a heavy commitment. This can go a long way in recruitment efforts.
11. 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.
12. Highlight your members
Thank them for their involvement, promote their work and contributions, and put them in the spotlight.
13. Link to other intranet content
News and information flows into your 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.
14. 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.
15. 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 intranet. 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!
This post was originally written in 2013, and updated in 2021 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
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