Six Obstacles to Building Communities in Organizations

By Sahana Chattopadhyay originally published in ID and Other Reflections

Rachel Happe begins her latest post, 10 Trends for the Future of Communities, with a comprehensive description of the various intersecting and intermingling streams and characteristics that inform communities, and I am quoting her below:

Communities sit at the intersection of a number of trends; social media, digital transformation, a generational shift to prioritize purposeful work, the future of work, change management, leadership and social learning.

This is one of the most inclusive descriptions that captures the various threads and reasons for building communities in organizations. Yet, this is where organizations are struggling. In this post, I want to explore a few reasons for this struggle. I have written before about the fallibility of trying to have social learning as a bolt on strategy, on the role of social technology as an avenue for building communities in organizations, and the importance of building communities to facilitate emergent learning.

The role of a Community Manager is becoming well-established with communities being perceived as platforms that have the potential to reduce the cost of communication, bridge organizational silos, facilitate cross-team conversations thus creating opportunities for innovation, knowledge transfer, expertise location, and more. However, despite of the various tangible and intangible benefits of communities, organizations are in reality discovering that establishing thriving communities and building a social business is challenging on various fronts, calling into question some of the very fundamental principles and frameworks on which organizations have been created. Here are some of the challenges:

1. Proliferating Platforms – Organizations, especially large, globally distributed organizations suffer from what I call the “unconscious silo syndrome”. Most often, the inadvertent unawareness of what is happening in the rest of the organization gives managers, decision-makers and other employees a feeling that “we are the new age torchbearers” and once it works in this team/project/business function, the initiative can be taken to the rest of the organization for an enterprise-wide implementation.

Needless to say, it is human for all to want a bit of fame that comes with being the trendsetter and a possible organizational visionary. In reality, this leads to pockets of experimentation and duplication of effort without a holistic view of or alignment with the organizational strategy and business goals. The result is of course a less than desirable state of platform overdose, and an amplification of the offline silos onto a now online medium.

2. The “Bottom-Up” Approach Many organizations tread on the conservative and cautious side and stay away from a big-bang launch for various reasons including skepticism at the leadership level, lack of skills in putting together a strategy for community building and management, fear of investing too much time and money without a clear idea of the intended results, and so on. The general approach usually adopted is to put in place a platform, do a bit of word-of-mouth marketing, and hope that people will start conversing and engaging on the platform.

The initial few weeks, or even months, may see some traction, but it is usually scattered, disconnected and directionless. Very soon the enthusiasm of the initial few die down, the platform either becomes a ghost town or a land of thousand flowers and the expected outcome of communities and collaboration do not materialize. As Andrew McAfee, et al. highlight in their book Leading Digital

“…we saw no successful transformation happening bottom-up. Instead, executives in every Digital Master steered the transformation through strong top-down leadership: setting direction, building momentum, and ensuring that the company follows through.”

3. Policy-Driven Paralysis When a decision is made to embark on a community and collaboration journey on the duly selected enterprise collaboration platform, organizations become suddenly fearful of all the possibilities of information leakage, open expression of sentiments by irate employees, sharing of sensitive and politically incorrect information, and so on.

The reaction is to begin by creating guidelines and policies trying to encapsulate and articulate everything that employees cannot and should not do on the platform. The result is anything but inspiring or conducive to open collaboration. It is akin to tying people up in chains and then expecting them to do a tango. IMHO, it is time to let go and show more trust in the very employees that the organization has selected through well-defined recruitment and interviewing processes.

4. Collaboration Conundrum While we keep hearing the impending death knell of the bell curve, the truth is that a large percentage of organizations still abide by it for various reasons – lack of another system, familiarity syndrome, alignment of business and operational processes, management capability (or lack thereof in handling a new way of appraisal), HR and leadership lethargy, and more. The result is the creation of a tension between a competitive and a collaborative mindset.

To be absolutely honest, it is very hard to be collaborative and share openly if an employee knows that s/he will be judged and measured against their peers when the appraisal time comes around. It is difficult for a manager to justify and facilitate open collaboration, and then do a rank and yank to fit a designated set of high-performers in the bell curve. And woe betide the manager who has too many high-performers and collaborators in his/her team. This false system of forced ranking eliminates collaboration, creates a sense of scarcity over abundance (be it for a specific rating or that prized project), and turns team members into opponents. Bye bye communities and collaboration!

5. Leadership Detachment – Many a times, something as critical as the building of a collaborative culture and thriving communities are left to the HR and L&D departments to drive. It is posited as “let’s see if collaboration & social business works because everyone is talking about it”. Senior leaders and C-suite members feel they are too time constrained to dabble in activities like communities when issues of graver import like shareholder profit, top line and bottom line figures, M&A’s are awaiting their attention. However, the reality today is that without a connected, collaborative and resilient organization, all other strategy is likely to fail. Times of intense change and ambiguity as we are living in today demands collaboration and a strong leadership who will walk the talk.

6. Dearth of Digital Skills – It is not that people do not know how to tweet or post pictures on Facebook or create a Pinterest board. IMHO, digital skills go beyond the common activities that almost everyone with a smart phone can indulge in today. Digital skills are closely related to a digital mindset, which I define as “the ability to understand the power of technology to democratize, scale and speed up every form of interaction and action.”

Very often, organizations — this includes employees, leaders, managers, and everyone comprising the ecosystem — lack this inherent capability of using technology to facilitate the building of PLNs (Personal Learning Networks) and communities. Digital skills include capabilities like working out loud, pattern sensing, sharing and connecting openly to develop a rich and diverse PLN, collaborating with a defined purpose, using technology with an awareness of its potential to promote self-driven learning, democratization of information, and so on. This mindset requires a degree of comfort with ambiguity, willingness to make mistakes, adopting a beginner’s perspective, welcoming of diversity, and a willingness to learn from all possible sources.

Permission to republish granted by the author.
Featured Image/Graphic link added by Enlivening Edge Magazine.