Recently the tubes have been ablaze with chatter of where the somewhat popular topic of community management should fit into an organisation. When the coin is flipped, said chatterers have been debating whether to place their bets on either Marketing and Engineering as an apt destination for the reporting line. Do we expect our community managers and representatives to report to the Director Of Marketing or the Chief Technical Officer? More specifically, when you bring a community manager into your organisation, which of these two teams do you feel can most effectively support and enable a community builder to actually build a great community?

In recent months the word community has become quite the buzzword in the Open Source business world. Its presence is felt more and more at conferences, in papers, on blogs and across the current global Twitter sensation. Irrespective of the medium, this explosion of interest in community has happened for three closely interlinked reasons.

  • Firstly, community is implicitly a positive word. It speaks of openness, participation, awareness, and an agreeable intention to engage in an environment driven by merit. For Open Source companies, this is powerful inferred meaning that speaks well to their audience. As such it makes entire sense for a company to light up their website like a Christmas tree with references to “community“.
  • Secondly, community has become synonymous with “engagement in the Open Source space”. Open Source companies are fully aware that if they don’t have an answer for their community relations strategy, they simply won’t be taken seriously by a significant demographic of people. Whereas five years ago this demographic of people was often seen as strange hygienically-challenged bespectacled nerds who lived in their mother’s basement adorned with Buffy The Vampire Slayer posters, it is now well known that those with buying capacity and/or influence are placing importance in the community attributes of Open Source . These are real customers who have developed this value expectation due to the constantly re-enforced Open Source mantra of participation, community and technical quality. When the industry cradles Open Source and its associated values, the big cats in the ecosystem need to adjust to reflect that.
  • Finally, irksome economic times have resulted in very real consequences for small businesses. Executives have been forced to re-assess how they can achieve their goals and ambitions with a more painful awareness of the bottom line. Multiple Marketing and Engineering people can be expensive, a lot more expensive than a Community Manager.

The amalgamation of these attributes has presented a strong commercial justification of community and those who can build it, and a set of expectations around what these community builders can deliver. And here folks, lies the problem.

In every industry certain words that once had reasonably obvious illustrative attributes and consequences have subsequently become colloquial references. We have seen this extensively with trademarks: Aspirin, the Hoover, Cellophane, Thermos and even Heroin were all once trademarked to specific companies (Bayer, Hoover Company, DuPoint, Thermos GmbH and Friedrich Bayer & Co respectively). Using Hoover as an example, in England many people will refer to any brand of vacuum cleaner as a “hoover”. At one point in time a “hoover” though would point to a very specific representation of focus, quality and expectation in a vacuum cleaner that was driven by the Hoover Company. Since then the trademark has been somewhat genericized in different parts of the world and what some refer to as a “hoover” will often bear no actual resemblance to the focus, quality and expectation of a product that would come from the Hoover Company.

Similar risks around mis-guided expectations are arguably facing community managers. We need to be careful that with all of the buzz, focus and excitement around community management that we don’t step over, hide or downplay the very real day to day focus of this work in favour of academically pleasing social science. If we unseat this balance, we face the risk of genericizing community management as “the theory of working with groups of similar interests” as opposed to connecting the term firmly with hands-on best practise in building real communities that do real measurable work.

Recently much of the rhetoric around community has been presented in a generic and somewhat ethereal way. Many people have stood on many stages and many blog entries have been written by even more people that speak to the theoretical, buzz-word entrenched social architecture of community, but unfortunately fall short of the details of how they actually build a community. Of course, this theory and social science is hugely important and I would never wish to demote it’s piece of the picture, but it does represent a piece as opposed to the picture as a whole. The rest of the picture (in the Open Source space) is filled with the nuts and bolts of collaboration.

The essence of great Open Source community is in great collaborative processes, infrastructure and opportunities that help drive a united team of contributors in a shared direction. When your community can get their hands on freely available and powerful tools, simple and non-bureaucratic processes, have a world of great opportunities to contribute to in different, diverse and exiting ways, and have their contributions recognised, a powerful and productive community flourishes.

Getting back to the puzzle that we set out to explore at the start of this post, community management is a tale with both Marketing and Engineering story lines flowing through it. If one is missing, community can feel unbalanced, misrepresented and ineffective. We should always seek to celebrate and market the opportunities and importance of community, but that means nothing if you are not willing to roll up your sleeves and build and re-enforce the collaborative groundwork in your community.

My recommendation for the Open Source businesses uncertain of how to move forward: ensure your community manager is well versed in the mechanics and technical/social foundations of collaboration in Open Source communities and ensure he or she is able to strategically structure and execute on objectives that enable your community on the ground to do great work. Ensure your community manager has a close connection to your technical leaders, but also have a close connection with your marketing department to help them articulate and express your community story.

Tiny Plug: Keep an eye out for my up and coming book on effective community management – the Art Of Community to be published by O’Reilly in Summer.

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