The role of community managers as knowledge brokers, local champions and designing/improving clusters of sub-topics
This article has been written in collaboration with Asmath Ruhi. Asmath is a Product Manager at Orglens and passionate about empowering organizations to leverage People analytics and ONA, for evidence based decision-making.
In our increasingly connected and information-heavy world, the answer to anything is literally a few taps away. Every domain has many online communities of practice (CoP) you can participate in. There are LinkedIn groups, Slack communities, Subreddits, and many more. Being a part of these communities means having access to resources and knowledge that could help you achieve your personal and professional objectives. This could be anything from solving a roadblock you face at work, learning best practices from experienced others or stumbling across your next dream opportunity!
These communities are rich, rich in untapped potential. Because no matter how organized and well-managed a community might be, a gold mine of information is still tucked away with its members. No, not intentionally, as the very spirit of being a part of such communities is information sharing and receiving. But there is so much going on in a community that finding the correct information at the right time often isn't easy. When valuable information is posted, it's nearly impossible to stay updated with every post, comment, reply, etc., or to retrieve the relevant information promptly. This is especially true with increasingly large communities.
More often than not, members don't know how to engage in a way that is mutually beneficial to themselves and other members. The community's channel structure, the features of the platform, and members' search skills and available time get in the way of finding the information a member needs to level up.
This leads to the question: What can Community Managers do to help make the most of these communities? How can they ensure that every member can get or give access to the relevant knowledge (effectiveness), but also at the time of need without much difficulty (efficiency)?
Social network analysis unveils how people connect, interact, and share information. It uncovers hidden relationships and helps individuals strategically position themselves and others within the network using factual insights into their connectivity.
A community of practice is a social network; all members are actors playing different roles.
An essential characteristic of social networks is:
"Individuals' positions in networks affect their access to resources and information, their ability to influence others, and their exposure to novel ideas. Conversely, individuals' actions, behaviors, and decisions shape the overall structure of the network."
Borgatti, S. P., & Halgin, D. S. (2011). On Network Theory. Organization Science, 22(5), 1168-1181.
Identifying individuals' roles and the network structure would help make information sharing more efficient and effective! Here is how social network analysis (SNA) can help us achieve this:
Community of Practice Networks: Ecosystems of Niche Knowledge Clusters
A CoP, like any social network, has members who are a part of it due to their shared interests. But even within such communities, there is diversity in the form of niched knowledge and expertise in different sub-areas/topics. Such members generally tend to interact more closely with each other. As sociologist Robert K. Merton said, Similarity breeds connections. This leads to the formation of Niche Knowledge Clusters within a CoP. A way to spot these niche knowledge clusters is that there is higher interaction between people in these niche knowledge clusters and less between them. And if there is little cross connect between these clusters over time, it might be at the risk of becoming an information silo. How can such knowledge reach all parts of the CoP? Let's find out!
The Role of the Community Manager in the Ecosystem
Community managers have to be the "Knowledge Brokers" in the network, who play a pivotal role in finding information and disseminating it to the community members. Using SNA, it's possible to measure if they are brokering different community members and Knowledge Clusters and if there is scope to improve their network positioning.
The role of Local Knowledge Champions in their niche
Subject matter experts of the community have to be "Local Knowledge Champions". They are central in the niche knowledge clusters and should have a direct line of communication with the Knowledge Brokers. This is crucial to widen the reach of the Knowledge Brokers.
But within a social network, there are more roles than Knowledge Brokers and Local Knowledge Champions. Based on members' behavior, they can fill up the following positions:
- Find members playing a central role in knowledge sharing
- Find members who have deep expertise but are on the peripherals
- Find members with minimal engagement with the community
- Find members who can fill gaps which could result in information silos
Tips for improving engagement
The following questions will help community managers and leaders strategize how to improve community engagement. Some questions that can help them would be:
- Is there an overreliance on a few knowledge champions by many? How will this impact the community on their departure?
Community managers can identify if only a few members are heavily tapped for their expertise. By overlaying the areas of expertise of these few people, they can make targeted efforts to find more Knowledge Champions in the same place, either from outside the community by inviting them or by encouraging existing members having similar expertise to engage more with the community. This will increase the resilience of the community.
- Are there experts not getting visibility in the network? What can be done to make other members aware of their expertise?
Community managers can spot the members who are considered experts in their domain but are on the periphery of the community network. This is untapped potential, and highlighting profiles of such individuals at regular intervals in the community it would help other members gain insight into their expertise.
- How can members be engaged with the larger community?
SNA helps identify potential links in the network that have a high probability of connecting based on sociological theories. This can help community managers plan activities and mindfully connect such members, which will likely raise engagement levels.
- Are there clusters of members interested in a particular niche who only interact among themselves?
SNA reveals the gaps or silos in a community which would slow down the flow of information. Participating only in a Niche Knowledge Cluster limits members from getting diverse perspectives and new information. This puts them at a disadvantage to others as they cannot get a bigger picture of possibilities and opportunities. Identifying this gap and filling in the structural holes with brokers having cross-group knowledge will improve the flow of information across the network.
To conclude, Social Network analysis allows us to measure the interactions and flow of information in the community networks, which pinpoints where opportunities for improvement lie. You can't improve what you can't measure!