Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Traits of an effective online community leader

In her recent interview for the  USDOE-supported Connected Educators site, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach author of The Connected Educator explains, among other things, what it takes to be an effective online community leader.  You can read the full interview here.  

Here is her advice. 

  1. Be a social artist - This person needs to be someone who is, in researcher Etienne Wenger’s words, a “social artist.” It needs to be somebody who really understands how to pull out and weave conversations, how to build relationships in virtual space, how to connect with people “behind the scenes” and use them as bonding agents inside the community.
  2. Have a go-to core - Many times those people charged with growing a community don’t make the effort (and a considerable effort is required) to make sure you have a core group of members—really diverse members, not just a clique—who are the go-to people. These are the people a community leader can e-mail and say, “Hey, did you see Dana’s post on so-and-so? Nobody’s responded and that’s one of your areas of expertise. Will you go and ask some good questions and give her some useful feedback?” Having core members who really understand how this kind of responsiveness can grow and sustain a dynamic community is huge.
  3. Be humble - Be a humble person—what Robert K. Greenleaf called “servant leadership”—someone who doesn’t have to be in the spotlight to find satisfaction. This is a person who understands that his or her job is to build the sense of belonging within the community—the sense that there is something so valuable here that I’m not only willing, but also eager, to give some time to this.
  4. Have strong interpersonal skills - Have the interpersonal skills to reach out to folks who are not participating actively and find out what subjects will engage them, and where their own expertise might be shared with community members. It’s someone who can find the balance between too much and not enough hand-holding for any and every participant.
  5. Make adequate time commitment - Doing this job well is very time-intensive. In a sizeable community with significant goals, it approaches a full-time job.
  6. Support new members - New participants enter into the community space but may have trouble gaining traction—they’re not sure what’s going on. While you may post plenty of information, they may not read/watch everything (imagine that). You’ve got to have some way to scaffold the beginner’s experience so they locate the basic information and activities you need them to engage in. Creating multiple entry points into a community site can help address this.

    For many novice participants in a virtual community, posting is an act of bravery. We need to nurture and celebrate those acts, and do it in substantive ways. It’s not done with a smiley and a “Good job!” It can only be done by having lots of people involved in responding thoughtfully. You need more than the single voice of the leader or facilitator recognizing meaningful participation or drawing out deeper thinking. You need a strong core.
  7. Build culture. Lose ego. Transition from leader to instigator to background facilitator - At the dawn of any online community, participants will naturally look to the community leader for structure and advice, and it can be very tempting to assert a dominant leader persona, complete with opinions on every topic. But the effective community leader will resist that temptation and move quickly from “leader” in the traditional sense to “instigator.” And in those communities that have a long life expectancy, the community leader will gradually move to “background facilitator” and let the natural leaders within the community rise up. And they will. All the research points to that.
  8. Promote conversation around the community not around yourself - The job of the community leader is to promote conversation about what other people are interested in rather than conversations that revolve around the leader herself. The job requires someone who has the gift of pulling the best ideas out of participants and helping them grow as thinkers and doers
  9. Foster natural leadership in the group - The sign that you’ve done your job well as a community leader is when a natural leadership group emerges, participants start instigating topics and agendas, and people begin shaping and assuming ownership of community norms. In a robust community, participants will start finding their niches.
    1. Community roles
      1. Nurturers who will always be seen greeting new people.
      2. Responders who have the urge to comment and make sure everyone’s posts and ideas and contributions are recognized.
      3. Pushers who can deepen the dialogue with their probing questions
      4. Sharers who are always finding a good outside resource to enrich a conversation.
    2. You may encourage these kinds of roles in the early going, but beyond the online community tipping point you rarely have to ask for it. On a slow day you may call on their help, but now you know WHO to call on for a welcome or a comment or a push. The niche people appear and you just recognize and validate their contributions as appropriate.
  10. Celebrate the efforts of participants, both in and outside the community - The best online community facilitators ask for and share news of personal accomplishments—they’re tuned in to what’s going on in the professional world that surrounds this particular community. When members publish books, post widely read blog entries, garner awards and recognition, the community leader knows and makes sure the community knows.

    This, by the way, is something to really consider during the planning stage of community development. How are we going to celebrate what’s happening in the lives of the people who are engaged in the community? One strategy I’ve seen had the community facilitator creating a biweekly “community news” post that also invited participants to add their own news via comments. This was highly successful, in part because people who might be shy about “bragging” on themselves (a not uncommon trait, especially among teachers) felt comfortable adding to a “news blast” that already bragged on other community participants. It was a deliberate community-building and bonding technique that really worked.
  11. Amplify community voice - How are we going to raise the voices of our community members in the outside world? This is particularly important in private or “walled garden” communities, but the principle applies across the board. How do we help communities and their members become adept at communicating what they know? And how can we call the world’s attention to the ideas being generated by the community and its members?
    1. Possibilities
      1. Publishing summaries of action research projects
      2. Curating a group blog
      3. Support members in publishing their work
  12. Value the sociability factor and sense of belonging - Don’t overlook or devalue the sociability factor. Encouraging sociability and a sense of belonging makes for a sticky community. One easy way to begin is to offer participants symbols of their membership. This often manifests itself at physical conferences where your members like to have a way to find each other or meet up. Consider having group stickers or charms that you can display at conferences for you, your laptop, or your cell phone to wear. Plan meet-ups and gatherings that are as much social as they are PD experiences. One example is our Pecha Kucha Smackdown. where people use the Pecha Kucha format to talk about something cool that’s going on in their world as it relates to the group topic.

Whether you’re an online community member who wants to know how well your community is being run or you’re a community leader who is wondering how well you run your community, these are 12 traits to consider about the leader of the online community in which you participate. Now that you’ve read these traits, what do you think? What’s missing? How’s your group doing?

1 comment:

  1. I love this! Especially the part about having a Go-to Core. Great community leaders know they cannot be effective in a vacuum, and I would think that this Core might be the field from which a successor to the online community leadership would emerge.