Communities are the future of management

It’s an exciting time for community practitioners. People everywhere are learning that successful business, management and change agency in this century requires an understanding of human systems – how to build them, sustain them and optimise them. This is the art and science of community, and its future is bright.

Recognising this, the team at Pausefest have kindly asked myself and Swarm co-founder Alison Michalk to host a masterclass at Pausefest 2016 on distributed leadership lessons from community veterans.

Colleagues gathering

Community management is the future of all management
Date: Wednesday February 10, 2016
Time: 12:00 – 1:30pm
Venue: Fed Square Crossbar, Building Level 1, Federation Square, Melbourne

Community builders and managers have built a decade of best practice in managing and mobilising humans – catalysing the purposeful and mitigating the destructive.

As work and workplaces have evolved, the approaches and tactics used by community builders are now being drawn on by leaders who want to lead from the centre out instead of top down (but still lead).

They’re generating wins in business, culture, engagement and wellbeing.

Alison and I will explain why community is now a leadership discipline – and what this means for the future of our organisations.

Together with a room full of fellow trailblazers, we’ll unpack community management as distributed leadership and, examine how it produces the kind of working cultures we need.

Interested? Make sure you come along to Pausefest!

Work is a trust equation

Work is not a place. Work is a trust equation.

It’s something some businesses are still struggling to understand and challenging themselves to implement.

Case in point, the UK’s Daily Telegraph, which recently installed sensors under employee desks to detect when they were present (therefore presumably, ‘working’).

The little black boxes were provided by a company called OccupEye, which claims to improve efficiencies in the workplace by optimising desk ‘utilisation’. The company says they were part of a sustainability program, and after some bad press, they’ve been removed (at least temporarily).

Let’s give OccupEye the benefit of the doubt that their technology is intended to create better use of existing spaces rather than insist on a singular style of usage.

The trouble is, employers with crippling cultural issues will be tempted to use this type of solution to effectively ‘microchip’ their workers, getting real time data that red flags a step away from the desk as a risk of some kind.

It also fails to grasp a simple truth. Work is not a place, and being present at a desk isn’t causally connected to high performance, indeed, performance at all (unless your customer success metric is hours spent sitting).

If people work best at a desk, that’s where they should be invited to work. If they perform better working at home, isn’t it in your interests to accomodate that flexibility? If they’re a morning person, why not let them start at 6am? If they’re useless before 10am, no amount of 8am meetings will change that.

Save it for the panopticon

Blanket surveillance has no role in a workplace. It’s running in the polar opposite direction that workplace cultures are trending worldwide.

Far from creating efficiencies, it introduces unnecessary costs; most acutely in the form of anxious, paranoid and unproductive employees whose focus is not on doing a great job, but on conforming to prescribed behaviours that rarely have a provable relationship to work outcomes.

The future of work is a contract of trust between employer and employee.

This doesn’t discount the role of guidance, expectations, risk management and clear goals – they’re all key. It’s about how the employee gets to those expected outcomes. The more they can control that process, the more likely you’ll get the best they have to offer.

A lack of trust produces passive-aggressiveness, defensiveness and hostility. It positions the employer as the enemy, generally producing one of two results – people that are terrified to come to work, or people that look for any way they can quietly buck or transgress the ‘oppressive’ system.

Communities aren’t made up of equals. They’re bound by ties of various strengths and different power dynamics. They’re no different to a workplace, which requires a foundation of trust for success, just as a community does.

How can you start the journey?

Universal flexibility isn’t possible for all (yet). Some occupations function within institutional models that demand physical presence and particular ways of working and being.

While we inch toward a more flexible working world, how can you start the journey in your own workplace? If you’re a leader, how can you signal trust with your team and give them greater control over their working environments and conditions.

Ditch the black box approach and talk to your people. I’m sure they’ve got some ideas.

Photo: Flickr: Joi Itonolifebeforecoffee

Ditch the feedback fakery

Ears listeningHere’s a resolution I’d love to see in 2016. Don’t ask your community for their ideas, opinion or feedback if you know the response is going nowhere.

Asking for feedback isn’t special. Step outside and you’ll trip over a poll or a survey request.

Seeing that feedback folded into action is much rarer.

Cut the act

In one of my earliest community roles I was told to ask our community for their opinion on topics regularly. Those insisting were crystal clear that they didn’t prioritise or value the feedback they were soliciting, and had no intention of using it. But they understood the theatre of permission marketing and that caring sells.

It sounds cold, and it was.

The community members in question were far too smart, and it didn’t take long before they saw the overtures of having their say for what they were – smoke and mirrors with no follow through.

Asking community members (prospective, present or departing) for their opinion and feedback is a powerful, critical act to keep that community pulsing.

It’s the social contract between the hosts of the community and its members, and between those members themselves. It’s a way to create influence and ownership, which strengthens belonging and boosts participation.

Ask, but make it count

You might need product testing, solutions for challenges the community faces, or just want to understand where members are at in their own relationships with the community.

Take time to frame your request to get the focused answers you need.

Design the feedback format and experience meaningfully. Can you find what you need with data? Or do you need to ask people for their time as well? The latter can be incredibly valuable, but beware using it as a parlour trick.

Be specific about what you’re seeking, when you hope to have results, and what you plan to use them for.

If it’s not commercially sensitive, share the likelihood of the input being used.

Plans can change, and you won’t always be able to do what your members ask. Talk about it to your members. Don’t reach for a distraction instead.

There’s a sea of hollow requests out there, and another of feel-pinions disconnected from a constructive purpose.

Here’s to a year of less rote asking, more active listening and way more doing.

Flickr: Ky Olsen

Beware the army of clones

Identical Storm Troopers

When community has been well crafted and managed over time, its members will feel a strong sense of belonging and be able to articulate membership identifiers that make them feel part of the group.

It’s natural that many of those communities – built around purpose, topic or practice – are characterised by sameness rather than otherness. People join, participate and return because they find kindredness, and form bonds around common experiences or objectives.

But it’s a fine line between group cohesion and a monoculture, where divergent voices aren’t welcome, and members fall prey to group-think.

Our age of algorithmically fuelled interaction increases this risk. We’re served more of what we already like, sending us deeper into the filter bubble.

It’s not just that our lives are impoverished when we’re surrounded by an army of clones. Our communities atrophy and wilt.

Online communities are especially susceptible to monoculture that drives new voices (new growth) away.

Learn more: Communities need to get things done

So how do you ensure the sameness that binds doesn’t ultimately isolate and collapse the whole?

Here’s some simple tips.

  • Ensure & protect diverse voices

Community leaders need to proactively bring divergent voices into the community. Recruit with this in mind.

If dominant voices in the community are intimidating less vocal members who may have alternate perspectives, find ways to modulate the balance and let quieter voices trust they can participate without penalty.

  • Illuminate personal stories

Giving community members permission (and a safe way) to share stories from their own lives in the community context immediately stymies a monoculture.

Even if world views are shared, lived experience is individualised.

  • Facilitate (constructive) debate

Even a community of narrow purpose has a spectrum of topical nuance within that area.

Use content (e.g. polling, interviews with polarising stances) to help members identify where on that spectrum they fit. Invite members to play devils advocate to their standard position and reflect on the results.

  • Focus on learning

Learning new things is a part of any healthy community. By instilling a commitment to growth you’re letting members know that status quo isn’t an option.

You’re also investing in the collective knowledge of the group, which means members in turn will value that community more.

Photo: Jeremy Keith

Ping-pong won’t solve your culture problem

Ping pong won't solve your culture problem

Businesses world over are struggling to build and maintain healthy cultures. They’re reaching for tools and toys that organisations with vibrant cultures often appear to possess, feeling like they’ve glimpsed the solution: a new intranet platform, a company hack-a-thon, an open plan office or the ping-pong table that’s become a cliche.

We see this with online communities too. New bells and whistles, shiny new avatars, enhanced functionality. It’s bound to re-energise the community, right?


Re-architecting an organisational environment alone cannot change a culture.

Encouraging people to hot desk in different parts of the building is meaningless if those people don’t engage with colleagues when they relocate, or if they’re going along with it to ‘get along’ and not rock the boat.

Holding a hack-a-thon is fruitless effort if people aren’t motivated to get involved, don’t see why it’s relevant for them, or have no faith in the outcomes.

Diagnose the culture you already have

The first step in changing a culture is understanding the culture you have.

This process needs to run deep, but here’s a quick example of the diagnostic questions that need honest answers:

  • How are people on-boarded into your organisation? Is that process consistent and useful?
  • Do people feel like they have autonomy and agency?
  • Do people only feel comfortable working with those like themselves?
  • Do people feel they have to compete for resources rather than cooperate?
  • Are people spending more time defending their value in the organisation than getting on with the job?
  • Would social events or activities happen organically and without mandate?

Once you know where your culture is honestly at, you can start to plan for culture transformation using the science of community management.

Scuttle the urge to invest in the shiny new intranet or that ping-pong table, and start with the more challenging and far more rewarding work of by building human-to-human community within your organisation.

Photo: Patrick Kiteley

Communities need to get things done

Recently I helped organise an event called The Final Mile with my Envato colleague Adrian Fittolani.

It was a weekend immersion event for anyone working on a project they wanted to complete. The Final Mile gave them the place, tools and incentive to wrap up that thing they never quite get around to finishing.

Screen Shot 2015-12-05 at 10.52.13 am

Participants worked on everything from building websites and apps, to business plans, to knitting and pop-up standing desks. The 3D printer hummed in the background as people wrote a public commitment to getting their project done and posted it on a shared declaration wall.

We took a break for a shared meal, progress check and some motivational words of wisdom from our friends at Culture Amp.

Screen Shot 2015-12-05 at 10.51.36 am

Stuff got done. Participants proudly posted to social media and returned to their routines with something they’d created from start – to finish.

Screen Shot 2015-12-05 at 10.51.57 am

Pop-up standing desk – finished, thanks to The Final Mile

Communities need ‘finishing’ moments

In our busy lives finishing has become a rarity. The to-do lists seem to go on and on, projects iterate endlessly and there’s all those side projects that we never have the time to get to.

But there’s a power in completion we shouldn’t let slip away.

Think of how good it feels when you finish something.

Whether it’s an unpleasant task or a happy one, putting it to bed delivers an energising kick. You feel satisfied, focused, You feel more confident. You get that endorphin rush.

Communities need this too.

Just as they need purpose they can invest in, they need regular forks in the road toward that purpose.

Gamers would call it levelling up.

What role does finishing play in your community or organisation?

Does the group often bring up things that haven’t been finished – promises that weren’t kept, tasks that were framed as important that have dropped off the radar?

Unfinished tasks can impact the morale of a group as well as the individual.

How can you utilise the emotional boost that bringing something to a close offers your people, teams or community members?

Tips for helping your community get it done

  • Create the time and space for ‘finishing’ community activities;
  • Celebrating finishing moments as a milestone. This creates another community ritual, which in turn makes the group more cohesive and cooperative;
  • Call out achievements in a public forum and let the group interact around that recognition. Individuals each feel they offer something to a group they belong to. Acknowledging completion of a mission, even a small one, validates their contribution to the group as a whole and affirms their connection to it;
  • Identify those lingering projects or promises that weigh on the group and agree to start afresh, or commit time to working through them together;

Getting things done together helps a community bond and deepens a sense of membership, belonging and influence – key factors in community health over time.

How will you help your community get it done?

2015 Australian Community Management Survey

In Australia there are hundreds of working community managers and very little is known about them. That changes now.

For every social media crisis, successful campaign, community launch or seeding of an online movement, there’s a community manager in the mix who is usually an unknown factor. That’s by design. It’s not about the community manager, it’s about the community – the goal, the outcome, the purpose.

Community managers and social media managers consistently perform health checks and status reports on their own networks and communities. But we rarely look inward.

When you’re invisible, you’re denied power and agency. You can’t be your best self and you’re likely to miss critical opportunities because you’re working without context or alliance.

Along with friends at Quiip and Dialogue Consulting, I’ve been working for a while on a project to help unearth the career of community management in Australia.

The goal has been to get the profession out of the shadows and produce meaningful benchmarking. To offer useful insights to anyone looking to join, or move through the field, and expose common needs (such as training gaps) so we can better address them.

Giving shape and form to our industry will also help the many organisations community managers inhabit find the best people, get the best out of them, and build communities that meet their objectives.

Australian Community Managers Survey 2015

This first career survey of Australian Community Managers was conducted earlier this year, and I’m very excited to share the results in full here:

Click the link above or the image below to download a free PDF of the full report.

It paints the clearest picture yet of the demographics of Australian community managers:

  • how much they’re paid
  • the size of their teams
  • how many hours  they’re working
  • whether they have strategies in place,
  • what kinds of support and resourcing is available to them
  • what their biggest challenges are;

… and more.

Australian Community Managers Survey 2015

Key findings

The survey found the average full time salary for a professional Community Manager ranged from $65,759 – $88,270, meaning around 40% of respondents are making less than the national average.

This is despite the fact that community managers are commonly tasked with maintaining the public perception of a brand or organisation, are asked to manage a variety of risks and may experience harassment as part of their work.

Social media doesn’t have an off switch, and many organisations are globally facing. Community managers are expected to keep up, with 43% working more than five days a week and nearly 80% working over eight hours a day.

Community managers are well educated – 76% have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Recognising the rapidly moving nature of their professional landscape, re-skilling and up-skilling is embedded in workflow.

One in three respondents said they had experienced personally targeted criticism in their work, and for some this had become full blown harassment.

As for their employers? The data suggests they’re either unaware or underprepared to support their people.

Australian Community Managers Survey 2015 Infographic

Thanks to all the community & social professionals that participated!

If you’d like more information, including how to support the 2016 ACM Survey, drop me a line.