Here is another in a series of notes on the 2011 Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston. I also just posted my notes on the session, Selling Enterprise Sales Collaboration Up the Chain here and more will follow on this blog over the next two days. This covers the session, Online Communities – A Strategic Imperative. The speaker is Rachel Happe, Principal, The Community Roundtable.

The description stated, “Communities are a hot topic but what are they and why are organizations using them for a range of business processes from marketing to support to innovation to internal collaboration? Networked communications environments allow organizations to strip out costs while improving agility due to the increased speed of information flow. However, they bring with them the need for new methods of management and operations.

In this session we will look at what communities are, their impact on organizations, and the new opportunities and risks they present. Included in the discussion will be key findings from the 2011 State of Community Management report.”

Rachel defined communities as a group of people with unique shared values, behaviors, and artifacts. They need to be opt in and out with no forced membership. People participate in communities because they get more out of it than they put in. If no one is at the bottom of the community then this is possible. Having a equal status across the community supports this.

Community management is becoming pervasive in this new social business world. However, we are in the “toddler” stage in social business market. As newbies we may not see all the risks and she plans to alert us to some of these. Rachel now went through a series of issues.

First, she said that social media is now mainstream. Companies are paying attention to this. They found that 50% of companies they surveyed are involved in at least four uses of social media. However, it takes time for organizations to change and some are doing old things in new ways. There are both benefits and risks in doing this. However, this may be distracting firms from new opportunities. In addition, when everyone is using social media, the first mover advantages will go away if you are just doing traditional things faster. The trick is finding and using the new ways that social can be applied to business.

Second, people are the weakest link in the community. People can only go so fast before quality suffers. There is a solution. It is relationships as they can endure. We need to determine what it means to have a relationship with an organization so the richness of this possibility can be gained. Trust will help overcome many other issues. Developing relationships needs to be the goal in communities. Strong relationships are the best competitive advantage and the most sustainable. Financial issues plus relevance, trust, and other community issues will win over just money issues.

Why do we need communities? They are one of the few ways to scale relationships. Relationships take time and resources. Relationships also vary in quality. They also go through stages of maturity. Communities can take relationships further than other social media.

All communities are not created equal. The requirements depend on a number of factors such as goals, location, and complexity. A community for the exchange of baby pictures and a community around heart health research have very different needs.

People have limits on how many deep relationships they can maintain. You need to compete to be included in that number. But scale can occur when you have a community member relate to their other people that they have a relationship with and so forth. Rachel mentioned a study that found communities with more women have a higher sense of relationships.

New community managers need to focus on the goals of the community and then spend time observing what is actually happening before making any major moves. Set expectations about your level of involvement.

Rachel introduced a four stage community maturity model. 1 – hierarchy, 2 – emergent communities, 3 – community, 4 – networked. They found that the market is mostly at stage two and some are at stage three, few are at stage four. Stage four is going beyond communities within a firm and having a truly networked organization.

Her take aways:

1. You will not win by just going faster (using new tools in old ways).  For example, some firms have set up communities but just used them to push out marketing material.

2. Relationships and culture are the new competitive advantages.

3. Community building is strategic and urgent. There will be a first mover advantage to doing communities right. People have a limited number of key relationships so get them while you can and before your competitors do.

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