Making the case for internal community managers

i was reading a great post on Fresh Networks about the key mistakes community managers make when it struck me: Most people are sold on the need to hire community managers for public facing communities, but how many businesses hire community managers for their own internal social networks?

Most communities rely on a small number of individuals who glue the group together socially. It’s a role that I have been discussing with many people, especially Kevin Marks, over the years. Kevin and I first met on IRC (Internet Relay Chat), in a channel where one person in particular played a key role in keeping things moving smoothly. She wasn’t chosen by the community, nor did she put herself forward to fulfil the role: it just sorta happened.

Since then, we – and many others – have been trying to find the right word for that sort of role. Whether you want to call them tummlers, geishas, animateurs or Chief Conversation Officers, these people are essential to the smooth running of a community. Kevin said in 2008 (read the whole post, it’s well worth it):

The key to [successful communities] is finding people who play the role of conversational catalyst within a group, to welcome newcomers, rein in old hands and set the tone of the conversation so that it can become a community. […]

The communities that fail, whether dying out from apathy or being overwhelmed by noise, are the ones that don’t have someone there cherishing the conversation, setting the tone, creating a space to speak, and rapidly segregating those intent on damage. The big problem with have is that we don’t have a English name for this role; they get called ‘Moderators’ (as Tom Coates thoroughly described) or ‘Community Managers’, and because when they’re doing it right you see everyone’s conversation, not their carefully crafted atmosphere, their role is often ignored.

These people are as essential in internal communities as they are in public ones, yet somehow we expect internal communities to just run themselves. It’s no wonder that so many social media projects wither on the vine: they are not getting the right social conditions to flourish.

Instead, I suspect that the tummler role is rather frowned upon in business contexts. That person who makes sure that they talk to the new users, who spends time tidying up the wiki and talking to people about how things work, who reads all the internal blogs and highlights favourite posts, is probably also the person whose jobs review says, “Spends too much time on the intranet”. The expectation is that everyone will take a share of the tummler role, that everyone is responsible for making the community work and so therefore it will. “Because we’re all professionals round here, and that’s just what professionals do.”

That is, I’m afraid, deluded bullshit. We need tummlers internally just as much as we need them in external communities. Certainly they’ll have to be much more capable diplomats and skilled in recognising and smoothing out internal political shenanigans. They’ll also have to be good coaches, helping people understand how to use the tools and why they should bother.

The payback from employing a tummler could be huge as they would be the people who’d help drive tool adoption across the business. I’m sure some will read this and think, “But this is what evangelists/champions do. We don’t need tummlers too.” I think tummlers and evangelists are very different indeed. Evangelists tend to be people who are superusers who are massively enthusiastic about the tools they are using. They often manage to persuade the people around them to use the tools too, but they don’t always have the social skills required to achieve even that. I have certainly come across “evangelists” that were so obsessive about their new favourite toy that they put people right off. They also, of course, have their own job to do. They can’t spend all their time helping others get to grips with social software.

A tummler, on the other hand, would be hired for their social skills, their ability to communicate, teach and explain, and their knowledge of the different tools and how they work. In a way, a good social media consultant acts as a tummler-by-proxy, encouraging their clients to adopt more sociable thinking patterns, but they can only do so much. A full-time tummler who only needs to focus on nurturing internal communities could achieve so much more.

I guess we’re back once again to the 20:80 rule: 20% of social media is tech, 80% is people, so focus on your people!

4 thoughts on “Making the case for internal community managers

  1. I would say this wouldn’t I … but I’ve found people picking up on the term social reporter: a blend of journalistic story-spotting, making sense, being helpful http://socialreporter.com/?p=695 Mostly used about external activities, but just as relevant internally, as you say. I guess what’s important is what bundle of skills and attitudes best go together, then decide what to call the role.

  2. Why not stick to calling them ‘facilitators’? It’s more likely to make sense to the internal people you’re pitching to? You then explain to them that it’s the same role as someone running/facilitating a workshop, or hosting a meeting – rather than having to explain what a tummler is. And rather than using a new name, you explain that this facilitation role in technology goes back through Knowledge Management, listserves, dialup bbs.

  3. @David Social reporters are useful, indeed, and I’d like to see businesses investing in social reporting internally to help spread knowledge, make connections and inspire.
    @Mark Whilst the word ‘facilitator’ would certainly make sense to business people, to me it describes a specific role which is not the same as the role of a tummler. Facilitation is, I think, more about specific situations like brainstorming, where someone has to guide the process and make sure everyone gets a say. Being a tummler is much more subtle and more about social awareness and conversational skills.
    I’m not keen on creating new terms for the sake of it, but sometimes the existing terms for something aren’t quite right, or we are looking at an old role in a new light, and then it’s worth throwing up different words to help us illuminate our real meaning.
    If I suggested that businesses hire facilitators, would they wonder what that would mean for them as a business or would they just say “Bah, no, we don’t need them”. If I said businesses should hire tummlers, at the least I might get a “What’s a tummler?” before dismissal, and I might even get to move a mindset or two in the process of explanation.

  4. Suw, what amazes me is that you even have to make this point in 2010. Where are the lessons we’ve learned over and over again?
    One reason may be our confounding of network and community dynamics. Networks route around problems and in many sense are self facilitating. The are also fluid and aren’t always serving the same function as bounded communities. And they aren’t the same thing as communities, which often sit inside of these networks, where the role of stimulation and social relationship manifests in more structured ways and is more easily blocked. Yes, there is a continuum…
    But still, why do people forget, it IS about the people? I’m amazed.

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