Is your company a community? ‘Of course,’ fellow NM’ers reply. But that’s easy when you’re NixonMcInnes and the numbers are less than 30. But what if you’re a company of 3,000 or 30,000? Is that a community? And does it matter?
Yes, I would argue, it does. Because communities bring people together. And the act of coming together creates energy – an energy that can drive conversations, innovation and success.
The ConnectingHR Unconference kept coming back to the question last week during discussions around the power of the socially engaged organisation.
It was a day with a broad remit and a range of speakers, plus some fabulous visual minutes from Creative Connection. So I won’t repeat the exercise in words. Instead, here are my take-outs from some of the discussions around employee communities and why they matter.
As Doug Shaw pointed out, the word company comes from the latin ‘cum panis’ meaning ‘with bread’. The story goes that merchants would meet and discuss their business plans over dinner (‘with bread’). Eventually their ventures were named after the dinner meetings.
So the act of sharing a meal created a sense of belonging sufficient for those early tycoons to name their ventures after the occasion.
But when you have companies that sprawl all corners of the world and co-workers that rarely, if ever, mix with more than a handful of colleagues, a sense of community can be hard to muster.
It would be nice if social tools were the impetus that brought people together around a renewed sense of belonging. Unfortunately it’s not like that. If there is no culture of collaboration, tools and platforms won’t change that.
First business leaders need to put conversations back on the agenda. As Gareth Jones, co-founder of ConnectingHR, says: “Up until now it’s been ok not to have the conversations employees want. But conversation is the new currency and it’s time we stopped faffing and started making communication work.”
Community managers? Really?
Community management can be central to the success of a community – at least in the early days. But is this the right way to think about it? Do community managers really ‘manage’ communities? Are they not more facilitators who bring people together, help them see the benefits of engaging and then sustain the conversation with an increasingly light touch? Or, as Charlie Elise Duff from BraveNewTalent suggested, perhaps host is a better? Or, as Beth here suggested, gardeners.
I would suggest the language doesn’t matter. But it is important to clearly understand the best approach to looking after your community if you want it to grow and thrive.
Does social disenfranchise the already disenfranchised?
Building a community of desk-based employees is one thing, but when they’re out digging tunnels, driving trains or building oilrigs it’s different. If access to email or the MD’s ear is already the preserve of some, not others, is there a danger of social tools reinforcing that divide and making unheard voices even more marginalised?
According to one client with a largely non-desk-based mobile workforce, increasing numbers of colleagues are already logging on to the intranet at home (and on the way home, I suspect). But what does it mean to build a community based on that interaction? And is it appropriate to expect employees to want to engage in their own time?
Trust is probably the biggest issue when it comes to building successful communities using social tools. There remains huge paranoia around the risks of transparency. But it’s not just a question of convincing business leaders – or jittery HR folk – to give up their addiction to controlling the dialogue. There is a lack of trust the other way too.
‘What if my boss is listening in?’ ‘Why would I want to live my life in public? ‘Isn’t Facebook for kids?’ ‘Why are we being told to do this?’ ‘I’m already snowed under by email – why do I want to take on anything else?’ All are common objections and need properly addressing before any online community will take off.
So, a lot of questions on the table (and tablecloths). But fewer answers. Instead, I like one comment from the floor (sorry, I would love to attribute but didn’t get it in my notes): “Communities are built one person at a time.” If you’re looking for one take-out from my day with the ConnectingHR folk, I’d make it: Think big, but start small, because there’s no guarantee that if you build it they will come.