By Rachel Happe, Co-Founder of The Community Roundtable
Most of us who drive cars stick to driving on roads. Why? They helps us get where we are going faster – even though the route is rarely a straight line between where we start and our destination. We could try and take a more direct route but at a minimum it would involve driving over uneven ground – at worst we would have to remove barriers like trees, houses, rocks, animals, etc. That would be slightly, um, crazy – even if there were someone that was encouraging us to do so and helping.
My point? Infrastructure matters – a lot.
The online community space is still relatively immature and because of that, we are still blazing trails and paving roads – but like the cow paths that have determined much of the street layout in cities like Boston – we are not always doing so with much forethought or planning. The result is that community managers have to invest a lot of effort to help people get where they want to go because the infrastructure is not helping.
But we actually know a lot about how the shape of networks influence relationships, conversations and outcomes. Experts in the social network analysis space – Valdis Krebs, Robert Cross, Marc Smith, Patti Anklam – have been researching and analyzing the shape of networks long before social technologies became popular.
Recently there has been a little more awareness about network structure and its impact – including the following articles:
- In social networks, group boundaries promote the spread of ideas
- The Network Secrets of Great Change Agents
However, far too many organizations do little to evaluate and architect their technologies in a way that works with their existing environment and business objectives. Because of that, new social network deployments tend to ignore the existing network of relationships and communication patterns in an organization while adding a new social network architecture on top of it that is often at odds with the network that already exists. For example, an organization that is highly hierarchical in information flows might deploy a open stream-based solution to break down silos. While the intent and goal are understandable it ignores the existing patterns of behavior, which get cut off and punished when they don’t respect the hierarchy. Implementing a boundary spanning solution will likely not go very far because it runs counter to what’s rewarded and restricted in the culture. A better solution might be to look at a group-based solution that still keeps conversations in their hierarchical context, while getting people comfortable communicating in a networked way. Once that behavior is established, smaller efforts to connect similar groups can help broaden and evolve the network.
For the user, deploying a tool that disregards the current network flow adds conflicting extrinsic motivators that can completely stall adoption and use. It is then left to the community manager (if one exists at all) to try and understand how to encourage and reward behaviors that the alignment between the existing and new network structures does not make easy. Sometimes, it’s as if they are asking users to drive right through a building – and because the barriers are virtual and relational they are not visible to the organization, the community manager or to the user no can see what is going on.
Most organizations and community professionals don’t even see this problem because it is such an implicit assumption of the software. Most platforms, in turn, have relatively defined network architectures because it is easier to understand and deploy. But in making the software deployment easy, they have sacrificed the flexibility to create a network architecture that can be adapted to different environments and different business objectives. It’s also what makes some current platforms better than others for different use cases – the stream dominated tools are better for connecting across boundaries and identifying opportunity but strain to serve as collaboration solutions. Group and space dominated tools are better for collaboration but can easily create more silos. As organizations move toward enterprise solutions they need platforms that can do both – in a way that creates information and relationship flows where they are needed and cut off flows where it’s not helpful or creates too much noise.
So what can community program owners and community managers do to better align their infrastructure?
- Educate themselves about social network analysis and how network shape affects outcomes
- Define what their ideal network structure would be given their current culture, business objectives and member needs
- Analyze their current network architecture and identify where it supports and where it hinders information and relationship flows – and how that effects the value generated for the business and for users
- Evaluate the UX and feature sets available and how they might be adapted to better serve business objectives and member needs
While in many cases, community professionals will not be able to change the fundamental community architecture of their network, by understanding how it’s impacting behavior and engagement they can mitigate unintended consequences through adapting the UX, creating training or running community programs that help reduce barriers. And hopefully, they can stop asking members to drive through buildings.