Communities, and community organizations, arise around common needs, values and objectives. A community is a community (as opposed to just a group or place or list) because its members share a common vision, values and voice. The strength of a community comes from the extent to which its members are invested in this shared vision and in their common objectives, the authenticity of their commitment, and the degree to which they participate in actions based on shared beliefs.
Any discussion of online community should of course look to ‘The Cluetrain Manifesto’ for guidance. The management approach in ‘The Cluetrain Manifesto’ is radical, to say the least. It suggests that to thrive in a customer-centered world, managers must hand over the reins, stop trying to steer the corporate message, and allow the collective voices of all of the organization’s members to interact with the collective voice of the organization’s other stakeholders.
Handing over the reins is an excellent idea if your company is truly a community, with members (staff) who share a common vision and values. If, however, your organization is like many, there may be a fear within management of exposing the voices of people who might get “off message”. Unfortunately, this leads to management feeling compelled to try and control all speech emanating from the firm, resulting in a continuing command and control approach to communications.
What these companies wind up with then is an effort at creating an online community to which most of the company is not invited. This results in an online community which becomes nothing more than an extension of the corporate website, or a participatory PR effort. It is ultimately a waste of time and money, because the company’s voice in this community will be perceived as inauthentic. If the company does not have an authentic common vision, values and voice – i.e. is already a community on its own – then how could it possibly establish a community with its customers? At best, an online community for a company that is not already a community itself (a community of staff working for a common objective) will give customers a place to meet each other and discuss how clueless the company is.
So, companies have heard the advice to free the message, give voice to the entire organization, etc. They know this is what they should do. But they are rightfully scared that if they do this, the pockets of dysfunctionality that permeate their org will become apparent. I read Cluetrain to say that this fear should be the catalyst and motivation to address the dysfunction; if your organization is going to become transparent due to the web – then you’d better get things in order. Unfortunately, seeing things this way requires having a clue, meaning recognizing that not everything can be engineered or precisely controlled. At its root, the organization’s strategy is only as nimble as the managers who shape it.
Many managers understand control to be their entire purpose, and the notion of sharing or relinquishing control is a very frightening thing, and something to be resisted. Thus, companies continue to try and shape to their own image the new social interactions that the web has enabled, as opposed to seeing how these new interactions will ultimately shape their business.
My suggestion to managers is to enter 2011 worried not about how their company will appear in social media, but focused instead on whether they have a community within their company that can be extended and shared with the world outside. If not – focus on building an internal community before trying to build a social media community which excludes most of your own company either by design or simply by disinterest.