Community Chameleon

July 6, 2009 CollabNet VersionOne

Most people know the definition of a chameleon – but, true to my engineering roots, I’ll take no chances and quote Wikipedia on the subject:

“Chameleons are people who can change their personality and appearance with ease, morphing into a seemingly different person…”

I think that is a great definition of what community management is all about. By the way, credit for planting the seed for this missive goes to my colleague Carey O’Brien – we were having a great discussion on the skill sets/personas needed to be an effective community manager, and we came up with the list below. Feel free to comment and suggest your own additions, since we might have missed your favorite. Community managers should be equal parts:

  • Psychologist
  • Coach
  • Information Synthesizer
  • Matchmaker
  • Referee
  • Customer Support Person
  • Business Development Professional
  • Karmic Leader
  • Public Relations Guru
  • UPDATE: Rabble-Rouser – credit to Jim Storer – see his comment below…

Amber Naslund recently wrote a great blog post entitled: ‘Five Myths of Community Management,’ which I think crystalizes the varying roles mentioned above in this statement:

Community Management is ‘…a different and evolving discipline that needs to adapt based on the needs of the business. And it does every community person a disservice to park them in the communications basket and leave them there.’

The fact is, you really DO have to be a community chameleon, playing one or more of these roles on a day-by-day, minute-by-minute basis. Yes, you can and should recruit community leaders to help, but ultimately, the buck stops with you as a community manager. Learning how and when to play each of these roles is not something that you can easily teach or write down – this is a skill you pick up by experience, mentoring, and by having a natural ability. There are plenty of people who are great managers of people that report to them, but those kinds of skills are not always as helpful when you are trying to influence and mold a community with choices as to who they’ll follow.

What I also find interesting is that though there are common skill sets all community professionals seem to possess, there is a vast difference between running a developer community (my area of expertise), versus a primarily social community. For example, I’d be a horrible community manager for a site catering to fly fishermen. 🙂 However, don’t let a perceived requirement for deep domain expertise put you off to a potential community manager within or outside your ranks. Amber hits the nail on the head when she mentions evolution and adaptation – those traits are usually present in folks with the right ‘curiosity bit’ turned on. These kinds of individuals can quickly get up to speed and bring their own unique skills from the list above to bear on the community they are tasked to manage.

The variety in community management is one of the main things that makes it appealing (and challenging) for passionate people, and why determining success is sometimes very ‘squishy’. You can have great metrics (# of members, # of forum posts, # of source code checkins (for dev communities)), but still have a horrible community. Conversely, you can have what would seem to be sub-standard metrics, but have a thriving ecosystem, because people are getting their needs met, which, in the end, is the ultimate definition of a successful community. Learning to accept a certain amount of uncertainty and being willing to ‘change your spots’ when necessary is critical for both people charged with building community, and the senior leadership asking them to do so.

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