Last year when I spoke with Rachel Happe about what was then the 10th annual State of Community Management, there was good reason to be hopeful that the concept of community had finally broken out of its backwater and had the potential to become mainstream. Fast forward to this year and while there continues to be hope, little has changed. At least that's my perception.
However, that's not quite the case and for this year's survey, Happe broke out the differences between internal and external communities. it is striking that external communities generate way more ROI (4,530%) than internal communities (1,967%). Part of the reason stems from the fact that the component parts that fuel external community ROI are relatively easy to measure: customer loyalty, reduced support costs coupled with better awareness and branding are the top three business outcomes. Where there is demonstrable ROI for internal communities, they not only figure lower but are seen as far more difficult to measure. (see image below)
COVID-19 has provided a generational opportunity to re-evaluate the place of community and in compiling the report, it is heartening to see that while 35% of respondents reported stalled or significantly stalled plans, 40% reported accelerated plans to one degree or another.
The problem though is that many organizations are not investing to the extent necessary in order to achieve significant benefits. That is despite the fact that the report believes there is massive untapped potential. Happe says that a big part of the problem comes in two flavors. First, 62% of community leaders have one or fewer staff so their ability to create community programs is extremely limited. Second, only 39% of respondents can calculate what a financial return looks like.
There are plenty of other stats over which to pore (subscription required) and I won't spoil your enjoyment of same except to say the picture is pretty clear: a failure to both invest and measure is holding back companies at a time when you'd otherwise think that community matters. And it was in that vein that we held what I believe is both an insightful and challenging conversation.
During the call, I asked Happe to explain what needs to happen. In this context, we have to take a step back as we debated why people are not on the balance sheet of reporting companies prior to recording the conversation.
It's a complex topic that Happe believes has its roots in the way slaves were accounted for in the 17th-19th centuries and as outlined in this book by historian Caitlin Rosenthal. While that may seem controversial, the development of advanced management techniques by plantation owners and the subsequent rise of accounting based on the deeply flawed Taylorism serves to reduce human activity to that of widgets.
People are not widgets and until we get past that mindset it is difficult to see how we create meaningful measures that firms can both accept and understand. Until we innovate our accounting practices, and our legal practices, we will not really transform our organisations.
That's pretty powerful stuff and a throw down to those professions to engage with community managers to help them figure out the metrics that matter and which can be purposefully applied to people. I argued this sounds like a need for a cultural shift but Happe thinks differently, arguing that governance needs p[utting in place because that serves to drive behavior. It's an interesting idea but equally, I can imagine the difficulties in finding a common language around which governance can evolve.
Moving on, we discussed the impediments to inculcating change, and one of the factors Happe pointed out was how hierarchies have served to ensure that the people who get heard are those who fit into predefined 'boxes' of attributes.
The problem with that is that if you're neurodiverse, a person of color or on and on then you're an exception to 'our process' but when you think about it, everyone is an exception so the idea of creating these artificial constructs around what people should do, etc constrains the very organizations that are seeking to be the best they can be.
So does the COVID-19 pandemic help to move this conversation forward? Here, Happe is uncertain.
I think certainly, it will accelerate and and empower some people that were already working towards change. I think it will get a large swath of other people to at least open up their minds to the fact that something really big does have to change. And I think for another set of people, they just want to get back to where things were, because where things were, if not perfect, were stable for them. And they were relatively successful in the system as it existed.
As always in these kinds of conversations, the potential for meaningful and purposeful change that benefits everyone is in tension with the interests of powerful investors who have been brought up on the notion that capital is king. In my mind, the reset of which Happe runs the risk of being perceived as at odds with the capitalist mantra. The problem is that as Happe points out, when done well, the community benefits everyone because you create a virtuous circle of benefit that is both obvious and repeatable.
In closing, I could not help but wonder if, with all the technology available to us, whether we are on the cusp of discovering something fundamentally refreshing or whether we end up regressing to a past state because it is familiar and comfortable. Like Happe, I have no idea which way this goes but my guess is that as large parts of the economy move closer to remote working as the new normal that community will have to play a significant role in workplace cohesion. Perhaps that's the entry point? We shall see.
But of one thing you can be certain - we shall have this conversation again. And soon. It is too important to leave another year.