I believe communities and networks are the most effective structures by which to establish this dynamic, and by employing communities, organizations can more efficiently generate value that is shared by everyone who contributes to it, in equal measure.
Our six years of research and work with companies in the field have given us firsthand insights into the impact of enterprise communities. This diginomica series lays out some of what we have learned, and where we see communities headed next.
Digital technologies have enabled communities - and challenged org structures
Digital technologies have connected the world – collapsing the cost of communication and, with it, access to markets. The implications of this are vast:
- Bringing individuals in rural areas of the world out of subsistence by giving them access in niche initiatives like Punjammies.
- Enabling those in the developed world with skills and agency to control their own work by becoming freelancers – a significant segment of the workforce.
- Giving small companies with specialized expertise the ability to compete – and win - against very large ones. GHY is a great example.
- Enabling more entrepreneurs to succeed - because the cost to start a company has dropped through the floor.
What does all this mean for larger organizations? Their access to talent and channels has become much more competitive. People have a plethora of options. Potential employees and customers are demanding more information, more choice and more flexibility.
As a result, the structures that large organizations have developed for decades now work against them. The control that once led to efficiencies of scale now constrain opportunities and employees. Organizations need to radically rethink but how they are structured, how they operate and how they manage.
So how do organizations rebalance so their structures support, rather than limit their potential? They must shift the focus of operations, management and work culture to inspire enthusiasm, enable potential and provide opportunities.
This style of management has been practiced by enlightened individuals for centuries. but is not the norm in our ‘modern’ organizations, which have prioritized predictability and efficiency, which reduces the amount of time and space individuals have to explore, learn and grow.
Where it did take hold is in the world of community organizing and development – where leaders had no explicit authority or control over the individuals who created value and impact. This ‘community management’ approach was then picked up by early online chat room and forum organizers.
Community management - proven approaches
This style of management doesn’t look much like what we think of when we think of management, and it requires the following:
- Modesty – the understanding that you don’t need to have the answer or make the final decision.
- Acceptance of paradox - and ability to move forward in spite of ambiguity.
- Approachability and accessibility - constant reaching out and learning from communities, realizing that understanding perspectives and building connections at every level of an ecosystem creates a powerful position from which to operate.
- Framing of problems by providing people different choices and the sparing use of control, almost always after other avenues have been exhausted.
- Leading with generosity because the power of reciprocity generates an authority unlike any other.
- Curiosity - because individual understanding and perspective is limited.
- Firmly managed boundaries. Having determined the playing field, those boundaries must be firmly guarded since without that, the culture and productivity of the entire ecosystem is at risk.
- Coach and model ideal behavior with the knowledge that this sends a powerful and critical signal to the community and creates a position that generates respect and imitation.
- Understanding of the power of small changes, because small changes are the gateway to transformation, and no big change starts with a big change.
Looking at the best-run online communities, you can see how effective this approach is both internally for connecting employees and removing siloes, and externally, for bringing new information into the organization and interacting in a personal way with prospects, customers and influencers.
Community use cases are proving the value
Take Rackspace, for example, where their community won a Stevie Award for customer service (via any channel) or Walgreens, where they are using a social Intranet to connect far flung and otherwise disconnected retail employees to each other. Other organizations like CA Technologies have had online communities for a decade or more, but have recently migrated to making communities an integrated, strategic part of managing the customer experience.
These are no small abilities. They open up a world of opportunity to those organizations that tap into their power. Organizations that create an effective ecosystem of communities around themselves can:
- Lower the cost of customer and employee acquisition
- Increase innovation volume and decrease its cycle time
- Develop interdependency with customers and partners, which defends them against strategic threats
- Decrease lost and duplicated knowledge
- Integrate learning and collaboration into every workflow, creating a constantly regenerating employee skill set
Communities, however, are poorly understood – particularly among executive stakeholders, and require organizations to set aside their traditional organizational paradigms. Operationally the business model and ROI of a community approach have a geometric instead of linear growth pattern – and the value generation is off-set from the investment.
Communities require the organization to give up some control in order to increase gains over the long-term. They require the organization to trust employees and customers. They require a degree of organizational vulnerability. They take time to cultivate, and the ability to manage the ever-shifting balance between what is needed by customers with the ability to execute efficiently.
But the community approach is the only option to succeed in this new world – a world of abundance that is in constant flux, where control limits adaptability, innovation and the ability to take advantage of opportunity.
In this brave new world, control is for amateurs.
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