Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Hints for starting and maintaining online communities

What to do if a network organisation of medical doctors is approaching you with a request to start an online community? It was one of the case studies which participants had to deal with during the second round of online conversations in the course 'Social media for organisational learning and change'.  Some of the recommendations which were shared by the participants included:
1. Start with research:  Check if there is an interest and energy to start an experiment with social media.  Check assumptions if the members think the same, as the head office of the network organisation.
2. Initiate an experiment:  If there is interest, start with a small group of enthousiastic members with an experiment.
3. Expand the network gradually:  Build an identity, have clear topics for discussion,  create and maintain an attractive online discussion space and start to expand from there.

Types of online communities
According to Ed Mitchell there are three types of communities:
1. Centralized community:  The group has a closed platform, where they exchange experiences.
2. Decentralized community:  The group has both a closed and a open platform. An example is an online intervision group, who share professional experience and share tools, literature and publication in public. 
3. Distributed community:  This group has both a closed and an open platform where they exchange information. However, they also involve other interested parties in the exchange of knowledge. An example is a professional network with a closed and open platform, using twitterchats, webinars or other public online discussion events for interaction.

See a prezi presentation about online communities (in Dutch language)

How to start a community?
There are five basic steps which need to be undertaken by the leadership to start up an online community:
Step 1. Build the identity:  Find common interests and identify shared goals
Step 2. Build the group:  Identify potential members for the community and define their roles and responsibilities and work to achieve their goals
Step 3.  Define the working mode:  Select activities and define the common ground rules.
Step 4. Find resources for making your community work eg. budget, time and commitment from community members,  communication tools , adequate know how  and authorisation from the organisation(s) involved
Step 5. Launch the community:  organize official events, establish a schedule and allow members to know each other and reinforce the sense of belonging.

Key success factors for maintaining a community
A starting online community is composed of 90 % lurkers (people who just read and follow discussions), 9 % of active members and 1 % of leaders.   An optimal and active community is composed of 70 % lurkers, 25 % active members and 5 %  leaders. But how to get there? Based on experience,  Erwin Blom (author of Handbook Communities) distinguishes five factors for success:
1.  Have a clear domain and objectives;
2.  Define clear ground rules  and maintain them;
3.  Involve community members regularly by inviting them to introduce topics and regularly conduct opinion polls for collecting feedback;
4.  Have an attractive outlook of the online meeting space of the group
5.  Introduce regularly small new things each time, e.g.  new topics, new information, new outlooks  etc...

Community Manager - The gardener
The community manager is the main online facilitator behind the screens of the community. He/ she is playing various roles, which can be symbolized as a gardener:
He/ she is the one;
  • Welcoming participants and make them feel at ease in the community;
  • Updating the membership. Giving new participants access to the community and introduce them to the ground rules.  Loging out members who are terminating their membership;
  • Maintaining the groud rules and playing the role of police officer;
  • Collecting feedback from members on how the community can be improved;
  • Addressing expert leaders to initiate topics or new theory or respond to discussions and encouraging group leaders to initiate activities or events;
  • Summarizing discussions
  • Introducing new topics, events, webbased applications and new ideas.

Tips and hints for initiating an online community:
Summarized I would like to give you the following tips and hints for starting an online community:
  • Start with a vision and passion
  • Form a core group of leaders
  • Combine content with process expertise
  • Experiment
  • Building relationships is more important than fancy tools
  • Be persistant and determined on what you would like to accomplish.

If you are triggered and interested on how to gain skills and expertise on 'Online Facilitation'  and 'how to guide online communities'  consult    There you find opportunities in participating in  the course 'Social media for organisational learning and change' ,   'Webinars with international experts'   and 'Inspiration sessions on social media'.  These online courses are a joint initiative of Joitske Hulsebosch, Sibrenne Wagenaar and Simon Koolwijk

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