How to Convert Members in Name Only into Real Communities

"The internet is great for spreading information and rallying crowds,” says organizational development expert Brook Manville in a recent HBR blog, “but you can’t mobilize people to collaborate and create something of lasting value simply by connecting them via the web. To get serious results from a network, you need commitment and a continuity of relationships among the participants.”

I could substitute “by connecting them via the web” with any number of comparable assumptions, depending on the industry. For example:  “You can’t mobilize people to collaborate and create something of lasting value simply by:”

  • Getting them to join an association or other organization and designating them as members

  • Calling them a community, stakeholders, colleagues, partners or other similar terms

  • Thrusting them together  in a committee or task force

  • “Training” them and preaching to them about the merits of collaboration

 “Members of a community — as opposed to a simple network — “ the author continues, “expect relationships within the group to continue, and they even hold one another accountable for effort and performance.” 

There you have it. “Relationships!”  I mean relationships, motivations, values, culture and all that soft stuff that, despite rhetoric, most organizations consider “fluff’ and peripheral to the real business of budget preparation, governance concerns, operational management, event production and management etc.  The point is that if you relegate the human elements of your business to the periphery and are not willing to invest in developing them for the long term, you cannot convert nominal members or functional networks into real communities of committed stakeholders no matter how much you spend on technology, marketing or staff.

And guess what!  In our networked, fluid environment, innovators and market leaders compete by leveraging assets and relationships from their extending network, catalyzing communities of shared purpose or interest, creating customer value by offering access to relationships and communities.  As examples of the power of stakeholder communities, the author cites “the accomplishments of Wikipedia contributors, open-source software developers who find and fix bugs in Linux, or doctors who help each another with difficult diagnoses as part of the Sermo social network. “

 When 2,400 member volunteers from Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA) organize into a veritable army—the Airport Support Network—to help the association monitor the use of 4,800 of the nation’s 5,200 airports in the United States, they are experiencing the value that drove them to join AOPA in the first place: safeguarding their freedom to fly and sharing a cherished activity with peers. They don’t need to be persuaded or to be promised rewards to join the Network.  They are truly and deeply engaged.

Converting mere participants into community, and parties of a transaction into stakeholders, is the most effective strategy for customer retention and loyalty,  growth, innovation, strategic partnerships and market leadership.  The blog cites the example of Pfizer in 2008 when it was faced with a costly model for obtaining the substantive legal help it needed to compete. The 19 legal firms it had contracted with were locked into the practice of billable hours, worked independently from each other and refused to share information. A new general counsel “urged the firms to look past their immediate concerns and work toward cross-boundary collaboration. The goal was to help one another get smarter, while collectively providing superior solutions for Pfizer.” The result was the new Pfizer Legal Alliance in which the 19 participating firms formed a community with shared objectives and governance that increased benefits to all, and agreed on a flat fee in place of billable hours.

What if you were able to convert your chapters, members, affiliates, board and other relationships into collaborative communities and partners in your growth?

What turns a network, member or stakeholder group into communities?  Below are strategies extracted from both this blog and my own research:

  • Turn members or customers from passive consumers to participants in value creation. AOPA tapped members’ passion for the right to fly and helped them coalesce into a community around what mattered the most to them.  The blog entry I cite brings up the example of Fast Company when, in the 1990s, it “expanded rapidly, despite limited capital, because its founders inspired people to build a movement of change in the workplace. Instead of passive subscribers, it created ‘communities of friends’ who generated new story ideas and collaborated with Fast Company staff to develop themes of the “new management revolution.’ " Members of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), a virtual community of small to medium veterinarians, participate in the community as content-co-developers, community managers, consultant-experts, champions, advocates, product development partners etc. The more each member contributes the more valuable the collective knowledge capital and, hence, the highest the return on their investment. These members take responsibility for maintaining and constantly enriching and improving the network.
  • Bring people together around shared purpose:  VIN members become members of a tight community because of their shared purpose to survive and succeed as independent veterinarians in the face of the threat of corporate medicine increasingly encroaching in their field.  Whether it is participation in a shared fight, achieving a financial goal, vision or other objective a team has set and bought into, purpose as (perceived by stakeholders rather than the company), converts a random aggregate of people into a focused community.
  • Develop motivating roles, benchmarks and measures of success for focusing on the real world, tracking progress and sharing responsibility
  • “Finally, and most important,” Manville writes, “make participants the real heroes.  Customer-centric organizations and communities are not about the parent organization but the customers.  How many association websites have you perused that extol a company’s or the association’s remarkable events, products, history, reputation, size etc. “We are the largest scientific association,” “we have the best, or most complete or comprehensive research resources….”  Not a word about their customers’ profiles, challenges, thoughts or achievements. A community cannot be motivated by the objective of helping a company’s P.R campaign or bottom line.  Members have a sense of ownership and are motivated to participate if they actually get more value from the resources and relationships of the community than if they were to pursue their objectives on their own. Communities exist for their members and are critical to their ability to succeed, exercise meaningful roles and engage as whole persons in what matters to them the most.    

 For organizations to be able to convert groups in name only to communities of shared purpose, their view of customers and stakeholders must shift from that of commodities—consumers of their products—to one of partners and assets to be continuously developed throughout their lifetime.  


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